Photo Class Helps AIDS Patients Look at Selves : Open Portraits, a workshop project started by Laguna Shanti, emphasizes art over therapy but manages to accomplish both

Warner always wanted to try his hand at photography, but with a busy career in marketing, he never found the time.

Until he learned he had AIDS.

When the disease was diagnosed last March, Warner (not his real name) sought help and counseling from Laguna Shanti, a Laguna Beach-based AIDS service agency. That's where he heard about Open Portraits, a self-portrait photography workshop offered by the agency and led by Huntington Beach artist Mary-Linn Hughes. He joined the workshop in July.

For Warner, who describes himself as a "closed" person, photography has become a means of self-expression, an outlet for the feelings of fear, frustration and anger that have accompanied the illness--which carries a powerful social stigma in addition to its deadly physical implications.

"When you take the pictures, you let out some emotions," he says. Taking pictures of himself--exercising control over his own image--has also restored a measure of dignity. "I felt I had lost it when I was labeled with this disease," he says. "I had to give up my career and concentrate on my new career, which is staying healthy."

Now, Warner is scouring local college catalogues, looking for ways to advance his new-found photo skills. "When I'm in the darkroom, I kind of forget about all this other stuff," he says. "I want to see where (photography) can take me."

"I think that photography is a powerful tool for empowering people," says Mary-Linn Hughes. "The media tends to imprison people in this victim status." Her role, she says, is giving people the tools to make and present their own images.

While AIDS is an inescapable aspect of the workshop, Hughes emphasized that Open Portraits "is first and foremost about art. . . . I'm an artist, not a therapist, and what we do is art."

She started the program in September, 1987. Last year, she won a $10,400 Artists-in-Residence grant from the California Arts Council, which in August was extended for the same amount through August, 1991. Of 194 such grants given statewide, Hughes was the only Orange County recipient. (Hughes finances the program with private donations in addition to grant money she is getting from the CAC.)

"I visited the program last year and thought it was absolutely terrific," says Carol Shiffman, manager of the Artists-in-Residence program. "It was one of the most joyous and life-affirming classes I've ever walked into. . . .

"Mary-Linn doesn't teach them what to look for but teaches them in a sense how to look, and then gives them lots of room to play." While the CAC funds several programs for persons with AIDS, Open Portraits is the only one that involves photography.

Steve Peskind, executive director of Laguna Shanti, also had nothing but praise for the Open Portraits project, which began just a few months after the agency opened. "Her program has been a very vital and important part of the agency," Peskind says. "It has very much worked to define the character of the agency--small, flexible, able to experiment."

The workshop now has five members, and Hughes also works individually with several bedridden AIDS patients. The weekly workshop meetings, held at the Laguna Shanti office, work as idea exchanges; printing is done at a rented darkroom nearby.

The self-portraits take a variety of forms, from straightforward to highly stylized. Recently, the workshop has concentrated on serial images that are assembled into one-of-a-kind books. Works produced in the classes have been exhibited periodically; several photographs and books will be part of the exhibit "Living With AIDS--A Collaborative Reflection," opening Oct. 29 at the Otis/Parsons Art Gallery in Los Angeles.

Sharing the works--created as very personal documents--with the public can be difficult, several workshop members agree, and some have declined to take part in exhibits. "It's very difficult for me. I really had to think about it," Warner says. But his mind was made up, he says, by what he sees as a need to counteract images of AIDS--and AIDS victims--that predominate in the media.

"I'm a regular guy," says workshop member Alan Goebbel of Costa Mesa. "All of us are regular guys."

AIDS "is here and something is going to have to be done. We're going to have to make it as public as we can," says Wade Wenther of Costa Mesa, another workshop member. "We have to be vocal. Too many of us can't be vocal."

When AIDS was diagnosed in Wenther, he was told he had between five and 13 months to live. That was more than two years ago.

A member of the workshop since it started, he has documented his physical changes--he has lost large amounts of weight three times, gaining it back each time--and his emotional progress. "The class has really helped me in dealing with the finality of this disease," he says. "In order to take portraits of yourself, you have to like yourself."

"I was a guy in bed groaning eight months ago," Goebbel says. One of his early motivations, he says, was to see what he looked like after losing 60 pounds along with much of his hair.

"I couldn't focus on myself in the mirror," he says. "We lie to ourselves all the time. Photos are photos--they're flat and they're honest."

Part of the process of taking self-portraits involves confronting feelings and truths that can be difficult to face. "You reach a point where you don't want to deal with it," Goebbel says, but in the end it is "very cleansing, very cooling. . . . It helps you define your thought and see the patterns in them."

Despite the monumental physical and psychological aspects of dealing with AIDS, all the participants stress that the disease is not the only facet to their lives, an attitude Wenther described as the difference between "living in AIDS" and "living with AIDS."

Their photographs, then, document happy moments as well as the difficult ones. One workshop member, who asked to be identified as George, says that in looking back over his early pictures, he realizes that he spent the first six months after the disease was diagnosed "in shock."

Now, more than a year after the diagnosis, he says he is finally allowing himself "time to have fun, or do other things"--an attitude reflected in his current photographs. "I still take it very seriously, but I allow myself to have fun."

Open Portraits is free and open to persons with AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses. Information: (714) 494-1446. "Living With AIDS--A Collaborative Reflection" runs Oct. 29 through Nov. 18 at the Otis/Parsons Art Gallery, 2401 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Admission: free. Information: (213) 251-0555.

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