Katja Heinemann

The Graying of AIDS
Biography:   Katja Heinemann is a Brooklyn-based German photographer whose personal work focuses on documenting social and cultural topics such as illness and stigma, youth culture and immigration. Katja regularly produces photo essays, new media... read on
Private Story
The Graying of AIDS
Credits: katja heinemann
Updated: 12/16/11

The Graying of AIDS – Stories from an Aging Epidemic is a multimedia documentary project that combines medium format color portraiture with in-depth oral history interviews to create a series of digital video portraits that draw attention to an astonishing fact: By 2015, half of all Americans living with HIV will be over the age of fifty.

American popular culture suggests underlying beliefs that we become increasingly irrelevant and inadequate as we age. At the same time, HIV/AIDS-related images in the media tend to focus on young bodies engaged in explicitly risky activities, radiantly healthy thanks to pharmaceuticals, or wracked with late-stage illness. The Graying of AIDS highlights personal stories that fall between those extremes. This documentary focuses on the persistent stigma surrounding the illness, and explores how people navigate relationships with their peers and communities as they grapple with the deeply personal and often taboo issues of failing health, changing bodies, fears of mortality, and a shifting sense of self. 

Improved treatment options in the United States mean that HIV-infection is no longer considered a death sentence today – as a result, we have become complacent in addressing the epidemic in our midst, even though rates of new infection in this country have not decreased in more than two decades. HIV/AIDS is increasingly affecting the poor, marginalized, and those who have limited access to adequate care. Indeed, everything we can’t talk about as a society – race, class, gender, sex and sexuality, substance use, mental health/illness, power dynamics in relationships, fear of illness and death – creates roadblocks to prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, thereby contributing to the ongoing spread of the epidemic.

This project is centered around a series of multimedia portraits of both long-term survivors and newly infected older adults. Bill in Chicago remembers the early years of the epidemic as a war veteran might; Bob in Little Rock was recently evicted from his nursing home for being HIV-positive. Sue in Florida was infected by the “love of her life” at age 58; a nurse said to her, “What, you’re having sex at your age? That’s disgusting!” Anna, an African-American grandmother in Baltimore, is “the new face” of AIDS in the US. Shortly before his death from AIDS-related complications, Thomas in Brooklyn reflected that “Everybody thinks that it’ll happen to the other guy. You gotta start thinking—to somebody else, you are the other guy.” Robert in NY founded a gospel chorale for HIV-positive men and is looking forward to one more shot at love at age 75: “I can probably be now the best companion that I’ve ever been.”  

The stories these older adults are telling us are a testimony to a crucial part of the history of the epidemic; their lives today provide a window into the future of HIV/AIDS.