Billy Howard's Epitaphs for the Living

Atlanta photographer Billy Howard began photographing people with HIV/AIDS in 1987.

Portrait of Juanita, photograph copyright (C) Billy Howard

At the time, there was no effective treatment for the disease—people diagnosed with it faced the potential of an agonizing death, as well as stigmatization, discrimination, and isolation because of fears and misunderstandings of the disease.

Once Howard printed the portraits, he asked the individuals to write on them a message about living—and dying—from HIV/AIDS. Together, Howard's portraits and the subjects' honest words gave distinct faces and voices to the harrowing statistics of the pandemic.

Learn more here.

Visitor Information

The exhibition is located in the Robert W. Woodruff Library on level 3. Parking is available in the Fishburne Parking Deck (Weekdays: free after 5pm, Weekends: free). “Visitors” hours at the Robert W. Woodruff Library are posted here. 

Audio Tour

Curator Randy Gue interviewed photographer Billy Howard about the stories behind some of his subject's portraits.

For transcripts, please scroll past the audio clips.

1 - Introduction

2 - Drew

3 - Ron

4 - Jim (James)

5 - Ricardo and Elena

6 - Deb

7 - Danny and Ernie

8 - Marquis

9 - Tom

10 - D

Audio Tour Transcripts

1 - Introduction

In the mid 80s I had a dentist that had become a really good friend. I mean, it's hard to say that you look forward to going to the dentist, but this dentist was a little bit different. And by different I mean I would go in and I'd sit in the chair, and then he and his dental assistant would jump in. And they would have those little deely bopper things on their head that would you know, like bounce around and try to scare me. Which kind of made me a little bit nervous. This guy with the deely boppers is going to have tools in my mouth.

And then we would exchange jokes. So every six months I would go in and we would build up the worst jokes you can possibly imagine. And that was kind of our routine. So I really loved him. He was a great guy.

I got a letter from the office in between visits that he was closing up his practice and sent us to another dentist. And so, he was about my age. I mean at that time I was in my mid 30s. And I called the new dentist and tried to find out what had happened to Neil. And I couldn't find out anywhere. And finally, I tracked down his dental assistant. And she said that he had moved back to Florida to live with his mom. And he had had some health issues.

Well, knowing the times and knowing Neil, I was immediately suspicious of what had happened. So I got his address of his mom and I wrote him a note saying that I really missed him and hoped he was OK. And if there was anything I could do, to let me know. And I wrote him a couple of times. And finally I got a note back from one of his friends. And he told me that Neil had died. And that he had had AIDS.

And he had been afraid to tell anybody. Especially his patients, because at the time you got all the blood transfer and all the things that happen in a dental office. And that fear, I mean, people wouldn't even shake people's hands back then. But to me it was profoundly sad that Neil was so afraid of reaching out and talking to the people that cared about him at a time when he needed their caring the most, because of the stigma of the disease. It just gnawed at me.

I was a photographer at Emory at the time, and I had an assignment at Grady to photograph an AIDS ward. And while I was there I met a person with AIDS. And I shook his hand, and he said to me later that he immediately trusted me because I reached out to him. And I asked him-- it just all kind of came to me with that one meeting-- I said, would you be willing to be photographed for a project and tell your story if I decided to do that? And he said he would. And we set up a time, and then I photographed him. And that was Ron. That's the first person I photographed.

And Ron wrote his statement under his picture and it was pretty tragic, devastating kind of a statement about dying alone. But he shared that with his support group. And then there was somebody in his support group. There ended up being two people I think from his support group that contacted me and said they'd like to do that too. And then that's how the whole project grew. It was kind of a word of mouth thing in Atlanta where one person led to another person. I never approached anybody and asked them to be a part of the project. I relied on people coming to me. Because I didn't want to be responsible for somebody telling a story that then they later regretted.

I wanted them to have made the decision before they contacted me. So it became word of mouth, and it allowed the people that participated to think about whether they wanted to be a part of the project without any pressure from me or anybody else that was saying, we want you to be part of this. So by the time they got to me they were all in.

But It all started with Ron. And it all really started with my dentist and this idea that the stigma that surrounded people with AIDS at that time was evil, basically. I mean, if you think about the people that you've known with cancer that are in states that could be terminal, then everybody surrounds them with love. But it wasn't always that way. Cancer used to be a mystery too. And people stigmatized that disease. So we evolve, hopefully, and learn as things go on. But at that point in time it was a moment when I think a lot of people didn't have a voice. And I was hoping to offer an opportunity for some of them to have a voice.

2 - Drew

I photographed Drew Carroll in his apartment in Washington D.C. And what you can't see in the photograph is that Drew was blind. But he wasn't blind from AIDS, although that was a side effect that some people suffered. He was blind because he was mugged and beaten up because he was gay, and he went blind as a result. His statement-- "dying from AIDS is hard enough. Living with it is even harder." It's one of the more tragic sentences that I've ever read. There was just nothing that was redeeming about the society that would do that to a gentle, good person. 

3 - Ron

Well, Ron was the first person I photographed for the project. My dentist had died of AIDS. It was very tragic. And I had never gotten a chance to do anything for him or help him. And he had kind of died alone. And so I was looking for something to do. But I wasn't quite sure what.

And then on an assignment for Emory at Grady, one of the people that I met was Ron, who was a person with AIDS. And it all kind of came to me then, that this person had a story to tell. And I wondered if I could facilitate that. And I asked him if he'd be interested in being photographed and have an opportunity to tell his story. And he jumped at the chance.

When I met him later, he told me that the fact that I stuck out my hand to shake his hand was what immediately broke down all the barriers that he had and started a trusting relationship, because that was a time when even the police were wearing latex gloves, if they even had to touch somebody with AIDS.

And people didn't want to shake their hands or drink after them. Or they didn't want to be close to them. They separated them and segregated them from society in multiple ways, some physically and some psychologically.

So it was a tough time. And Ron is an amazing story to me, because what he wrote was about dying alone. And he had been a hospital administrator in Clayton County. When he got AIDS, he was afraid that everybody would reject him. And he wasn't strong enough at that point to accept that kind of rejection.

So he self-segregated himself. He left Clayton County. He rented a room in a house in Atlanta, a single room, and dropped out. None of the people that he worked with knew what had happened to him.

And a few months after I started working on the project, the Atlanta Journal Constitution did a Sunday story on the people that I had been photographing and the stories that they were telling. And the lead picture was Ron and his story. His coworkers in Clayton County saw that story and read it and got in touch with me and told me they wanted to get in touch with Ron.

So I called Ron. And I said, these people want to talk to you. Are you willing to share your contact information? And he said he was. And so I got it to them. They met with Ron and became his support group until he died. They were his hospice, his caretakers. They were there for him.

Exactly what he feared would happen did not. They dispelled his fears of dying alone. And that's the last thing he said. He was afraid that he would die alone and no one would care. And it changed the way that he was able to die. It gave him a sense of dignity and love and value that a lot of people during that time were being robbed of.

So that one moment, that one connection, that was the whole project to me. Just that one thing made all the energy and effort I had put into it worthwhile. And so I felt like what I was doing had a meaning outside of myself. It was about their stories and their lives and offered them an opportunity to find themselves. And Ron gave me that. And he was a beautiful person and deserved to have that in the end. They all did.

4 - Jim (James)

I photographed Jim in August 1987. So he was one of the early people in the project.

I would take the photograph. I would print it at the top of an 11 by 14 sheet of photographic paper, leave the bottom blank, and take it to the person I'd photograph with a pen. And I would tell them they can write whatever they want. I'm not going to edit it. If you write it, I'll publish it. And I told them they had as much time as they needed.

So I gave the picture to Jim, and he liked the picture. And I kept in touch with him. And I'd call him every month or two. And he said, oh, I'm still working on it. I'm going to get it to you. I'm going to get it to you. Give me a week or two. And then I'd call him in a week or two. And he'd said, oh, you know, I'm sorry. I'm just-- I'm having trouble figuring out what to write.

That went on for over a year. And I got to the point where I was-- now I had a deadline. And we were going to produce the book. And I wanted Jim to be a part of it. He wanted to be a part of it, I knew.

Finally, he said, OK, I've got it done. And I arranged to meet him. I went over, I picked up the image from Jim, and he apologized for how long it took and thanked me for giving him the time. And he said, he had felt like he was writing his will. And that just really struck me. And that got me thinking about epitaphs-- what is said about people after they're gone.

And from that, I came up with the title for the entire project-- Epitaphs for the Living. Because I realize, they're writing something that might be their last statement. Like Jim, felt like it was his will. And people were being very thoughtful and serious about what they were saying. But they didn't live their life like they were dying. They were living their life. So Epitaphs for the Living. And that-- that was Jim's gift to me. And it was worth the wait.

5 - Ricardo and Elena

I got a call from a woman who asked me if her son could be a part of the project, part of this book, but he was already gone. He'd died. And so I told her that I would photograph her and she could tell the story of her son. So I photographed Elena holding a picture of her son Ricardo.

And she said that she clearly remembered the last conversations she had with her son. And it started in 1985 when he got sick, but told her not to worry. And it ended when he told her that he wanted lots and lots of flowers at his funeral a year later. It was a conversation that no mother, no parent wants to have with their son, telling her that it was all going to be OK, telling her that he had AIDS, and then finally telling her that he was going to leave her.

6 - Deb

Deb was a sweetheart. I didn't photograph many women. And part of the reason for that is that-- and there are some groups that are under-represented in the book. But this was 1987 and '88 when I was taking these photographs. And I wasn't willing to go out and try to find people. I decided that the project would be about people finding me.

And I tried to get the word out to as many people [? and ?] as broad a range of people as I could. But if they didn't contact me, I wasn't going to do that because of the stigma of the disease. I didn't want the pressure of feeling like I had pressured somebody into outing themselves in a community that was being stigmatized and was having their health care jeopardized, their jobs jeopardized, their insurance jeopardized because of simply the fact that they had gotten this disease.

But Deb found me through a support group. And she was just a girl. She loved girl stuff. And she had become sick with AIDS, and her mom was going to throw her a birthday party. And when she had the party, she realized there weren't any candles on the cake. And her mother told her that she was afraid that nobody would want to eat the cake if she blew out the candles.

And that just symbolic moment was one of those things. It's a simple little moment in life that she realized had changed her life, that she was different than she had ever been before, that she wasn't going to have the ability to walk through life as a free person anymore. I kept in touch with Deb. And she started dating another guy. And the guy knew that she had AIDS. And they were careful and all of that. So she didn't give up. But she didn't survive. Very few people from those years survived.

7 - Danny and Ernie

The first person that died while I was working on this project was Danny. And Danny is one of the people that I photographed that was in the late stages of AIDS, and he looked ravaged, and his body had been devastated by the disease. But his lover and best friend Ernie was always there with him. And I photographed Danny with Ernie in the hospital room with him. And Ernie was sick too, but he hadn't reached the stage Danny was at.

So I photographed Ernie, and Ernie chose to be photographed in this flamboyant fur coat that Danny had given him. And he said that it was a different kind of warmth. He treasured the coat, he loved the coat, but it wasn't the kind of warmth that he needed, and that came from Danny.

8 - Marquis

When I would meet somebody that wanted to be photographed, I wanted to take a photograph of them in a space or a place that was meaningful to them. And many times, that was their home, their apartment, sometimes just a bare room. And sometimes it was a hospital bed, and actually sometimes it was a vehicle.

But I met Marquis Walker at his apartment. And the first thing I do when I walk in is I look for two things. I look for the light, because the light is everything to me. And many times I use the natural light that's coming in, and sometimes I have to add a little bit of light. But I'm always looking for where the light is coming from. And the other thing that I'm looking for are icons and talismans of items and things that people collect, they put on their wall, the things that they find important, the things that might be clues to something about them.

I look for those as background. Will that be a good background for this person that will say something about who they are and give a sense of, it could be their style, it could be religious items that say something about their faith, or in one case it was a game of Monopoly in the background. It just depends on the person.

I went into Marquis' apartment, and I wasn't feeling that. I wasn't feeling that he had really personalized his space. But I kept looking at the light on Marquis' face and how beautiful it was, and how beautiful his face was, and how expressive his eyes were. And I realized I'm looking too much around and not enough at Marquis.

And so Marquis is one of the few pictures that is just a really tight, straightforward portrait. But I feel like Marquis is looking back in a way that is compelling to anybody that looks at that photograph. And it expresses, in his expression, his sense of social justice, and justice for the people that are suffering from AIDS, and in particular African-American gay men that are suffering from AIDS, and the three crosses that they have to bear, dealing with the stigma of the disease of homophobia and of racism all at the same time.

And mimicking Martin Luther King Jr. saying that he hoped the time that people judged people just on the content of their character would be soon. And I thought his face absorbed and contained all of those sentiments.

9 - Tom

Tom Fox was dying. He was full of life, and he obviously loved his dogs. So I photographed him with his dogs, because there was no other way to photograph Tom. He had that kind of relationship with his dogs that they were his children.

And Tom was a beautiful spirit. He provided a gift to his family. Kind of weird to say that that would come from a disease like AIDS, but through this project I met people whose parents had abandoned them and rejected them and ostracized them and basically kicked them out of the family. I wonder today how those people are living with their decisions that they made back then now that they've lost their sons and daughters.

Tom's father was a real hard nosed guy. He grew up in a generation where you don't show a lot of emotion, and he didn't approve of Tom's lifestyle. We know those kinds of people. But Tom got sick, and it clicked a switch in his dad. And his dad changed, pivoted, and became one of the most empathetic, caring people that I've met.

He became a big hugger, and he rallied the troops for Tom. And Tom's family became tighter and closer as Tom got sicker and eventually died. So it was Tom's experience with this illness that basically woke his dad up to caring about the people around him in a more authentic and genuine way. It was a beautiful family.

Another photographer, a friend of mine, Michael Schwartz, followed Tom's journey throughout his illness. I think the story was "A Long Way Home." It was one of the most popular stories that has ever been produced by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. They did a survey of the most popular stories of the last 50 years. And Michael's story, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, won that. And the final image in it was gripping image of his entire family surrounding him the moment he died. And if you're not moved by it, there's very little that will move you in the world.

But I think Tom's gift to the rest of us was a message of caring and empathy and being open to those around us. And the one person that it affected the most was his father.

10 - D

I got a call from D. He had heard about the project I was working on and got my number and called me. He told me he wanted to be in the book, and could he do it just writing? Could we do it without taking his picture? He was afraid, he didn't want people to know he had this disease. And I said, you know, it's a photography project, so I really need to take a picture, but I think we can work out a way that I can take a picture where you can remain anonymous. And he like that idea.

And so I went over to his apartment. And we looked around, and he had this turtleneck. And I thought, well, pull the turtleneck up over your face. And he did, and he put his hand over one side of his face and kept the turtleneck. And all you could see was his eye. And I took the picture, and he loved it.

And he was able to make his statement, which was basically telling you why there were people that had to remain anonymous. Because he had to be afraid for his job, for his health insurance, for being rejected by his family and friends. And he signed it simply D.

20 years later, a friend of mine had a business lunch and called me and said, you know, I was having lunch with this guy and your name came up. And he said, oh I was in a book that he did. And it was the D. And I got in touch with D and I met him again, and I took his photograph again.

It was Doug Lothes, and he was a different person in that he had survived. He had survived for the past 20 years. He had had a diagnosis of HIV, and before it became full blown AIDS, the cocktails had come out that allowed him to not only live, but thrive. When I saw him walking towards me it was like a ghost had come back into my life.

I had lost almost everybody, over 70 people that I've photographed, gone. There are only a few that are surviving, and Doug is one of those people. And he's willing to embrace his diagnosis now, and he feels like so much has changed since those early days. I keep in touch with Doug.

The Smithsonian exhibited work from this project on the mall during their Folklife Festival in 2012, and they flew Doug, who lives in California now, out to be with me. So we spent three days together, talking to people on the Mall in Washington DC about the experience back then in the late 80s, all of these people living and dying with HIV/AIDS.

I can't express the emotion of seeing Doug, and having this amazing man keep me in touch with all of the people that I lost.