Kurt Weston thought the day he was diagnosed with AIDS was the darkest moment of his life.
But more agony was yet to come for the 41-year-old photographer.
The disease triggered a virus that destroyed his retinas, causing him to go legally blind. He was eventually forced to quit his job as a commercial photographer. His passion for detail and visual beauty was reduced to memories and caresses of his cameras.
This year, with encouragement from friends, Weston picked up a camera again. After a years-long hiatus, he began taking pictures.
Though he only sees traces of light and dim figures as if looking through thick shower glass, it is enough to allow him a second chance at his lifelong passion.
"I never even suspected I could be a photographer again," said Weston, who lives in Garden Grove. "It is to me a miracle."
He recently finished taking pictures for a calendar to benefit the Asian Pacific Crossroads, a center that provides support for Asian Pacific gays and lesbians in Garden Grove. In January he will begin working on a calendar for the AIDS Services Foundation in Orange County and will have an exhibition of his photographs in a Los Angeles art gallery that month.
After the death of his partner, horrible facial lesions from AIDS and seven years of painful intravenous therapy, Weston said he is beginning to sense a calm in his life again.
With the help of new drug technology, the deadly disease has been stabilized, no longer rendering him bedridden.
"Things for so long were getting so depressing," he said. "When I came out here from Chicago [three years ago] I actually thought I came out here to die. Now I hope that I can resurrect my career. It's a whole resurrection of hope. I feel like I've been given a reprieve."
Weston was infected with the human immunodeficiency virus at a time when the mysterious disease was still called a gay cancer. In the mid-1980s his circle of friends began to fall apart. With many of them succumbing to the disease, Weston began throwing out his address books.
Weston was diagnosed with AIDS in 1991. He suffered through three cases of pneumonia, lost 40 pounds and had an intravenous needle in his arm indefinitely to supply his drug doses.
But even during this time, Weston did not stop his activities or his photography. He founded a nonprofit service organization in his native Chicago and gave lectures on the importance of good nutrition to combat AIDS.
Hoping to learn as much as possible about the disease, Weston attended many seminars. He says he distinctly remembers one evening when a speaker described cytomegalovirus retinitis--a fairly rare condition triggered by AIDS that eventually destroys the retina.
"I remember thinking that would be the most horrible thing to get," he said.
In 1993, he contracted it. Before long, he had lost all of his peripheral vision in his left eye and vision in his right eye was quickly deteriorating.
"I was always a very independent person, and [losing your vision] is a very hard thing. It is pretty devastating," he said.
His condition worsened. In what he thought would be the final chapter of his life, he moved to Orange County to be near his father and brother in September 1995.
But again, Weston tried not to give up. He attended classes at the Braille Institute to learn how to manage his life with limited vision. He bought special glasses that magnify everything nearly 20 times.
Then his companion of two years, Va Hong, died in January of AIDS complications. Devastated, Weston again came close to giving up. Then, some thought or feeling guided his hand to pick up one of his cameras. On a whim, he looked through the lens.
"When I realized I could still focus a lens, I was shocked," he said.
Soon afterward, friends at the Asian Pacific Crossroads center asked him to photograph a 1999 calendar for a benefit. Again to his amazement, he came through, producing 12 pictures of models with sculpted bodies and dramatic lighting.
"I was just amazed at the professionalism and the vibrancy of the photos," said Joel Arellano of the Asian Pacific Crossroads center. "Meeting him, talking to him and seeing his work, you cannot tell that he is going through this disease."
Weston--no relation to renowned photographers Edward or Brett Weston--guides himself through memory and with the help of the high-magnification glasses. He wears a jeweler's cap to view his prints closely and has bought a mouse-operated camera, which magnifies his prints onto his television set.
"I put it together like a puzzle--partly on what I can see and partly on what I know," he said.
With the help of new drug therapy and his $345-a-month regimen of vitamins and supplements, the disease is under control. Weston has regained his natural weight. He has continued to volunteer with the HIV Planning Advisory Council of Orange County and other AIDS community organizations.
"To go through what he did would have been devastating to me," said Father Thomas Nylund, Weston's neighbor and a fellow AIDS patient. The American Orthodox priest ministers to HIV-positive people. "He is not, as I would call it, an 'injustice collector.' You don't hear him going around saying, 'Poor me, my life is miserable.' If anything, he clings to life. He celebrates life."
With his career resurfacing, Weston said he is not ready to end his fight against AIDS. With World AIDS Day coming Tuesday, Weston said he wants to send out a message that contracting AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence.
"This is a time, more than ever, to feel hope," he said. "In this country, we've turned a terminal illness into a chronic, manageable disease. We'll see what happens in the future. Right now, I'm just living for the moment."