TB-AIDS DIARY: Stigma Bearing Roses

Delivered by Linda Troeller at Ryerson University, Toronto 2007      

This series of photographs by Linda Troeller is important in the history of photography. In a pre-Photoshop time, Troeller's work is tactile and sensual. She used images as a complex language, mysterious and deeply honest. Poetry in pictures but not always pretty. Gail Buckland, Distinguished Visiting Professor, History of Photography, The Cooper Union

I am going to talk to you about the subject of stigma and its relation to AIDS and Tuberculosis. I'll approach this by first linking the past with the present and then discussing how these issues are autobiographical for me.


Buddha taught:

When conditions are given things manifest. When they are no longer sufficient they withdraw.

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Things did manifest again since I first began exhibiting the TB-AIDS DIARY, so now it has a revival of its original purpose. It was created in 1987 to address issues of stigma by comparing the response to TB patients in the 1930s to the reaction toward AIDS sufferers today. I was using TB as a metaphor for the stigma surrounding contagious disease, and treating it primarily as a historical artifact. Sadly, over the last few years we have witnessed not only the rapid increase of AIDS worldwide, but also the activation of TB in the homeless and drug-user populations, and now its vast increase among AIDS patients.


Former president Clinton, heading a Foundation for AIDS, TB and Malaria, said last month that people need to be tested, but don't go as they are afraid to be known to have HIV, and this stigmatic factor is on the rise among students and in the African American population.


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The photo here from the TB part of the series highlights how patients were taught to cough up the blood and fluid from their lungs into a cup and then put the cup in a brown bag and discard it right away. People wish to breathe freely and fully. People wish to participate in vitality, which is their genuine right to life. The TB and AIDS link goes beyond the physical to a deeper level of consciousness. TB is a very old disease. It is a disease of the lungs, of our breath, of the coming and going of matter. The word person comes from the Latin persona, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "generally thought to be related to the Latin personare, to sound through." To lose so many world citizens by TB is to lose our collective breath, which is a vital force of the planet.


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The power of inhaling in the chest forms a rhythm and pattern of newness, of the next moment the future. Now is time to focus on the Breath. The resurrection of TB is insufferable because it is suffocating. TB infiltrates air, something so precious. Jonathan Berger's poem " Breath" brings us the sense of its value and purity:


With this little time to think

To breathe

To be

I can see things differently

See things clearer

Understand everything much more.


With this distance

I have distance

Have clarity

I have enhanced vision.


I can take in the air more easily

Make sense of it all.

Experience the world more readily

More ably

More competently.

At last, again

I can breathe.



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The first set of images in the TB-AIDS DIARY focus on TB, and incorporate some excerpts from the diary of my mother, Marion Troeller; along with snapshots she took while recovering at the Saranac TB Sanitarium in 1933-34. This is she, in the bed in the sun solarium. During this time TB was called” the white plague," so people were stigmatized by this problem; my father was advised not persist in his plan to marry her.

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Here is my mother when dad visited her on the cure porch, and later at a 40th anniversary celebration where she said, "People don't like being marked."


Her doctors told her not to have children; it would be a strain on her system. People who are documented as "ill" often have to take chances outside the "known" perceptions to find their own health. But my father married her. Some years later, during WWII, he was drafted, and injured — at 38, unable to work again full-time or walk without pain. He was periodically told he had a year to live. The prophecy of his early death, and his inability to earn a living, were his stigmata. So, as a child, I lived with both my parents' fears and struggles. Maybe that's why I became fascinated with my mother's snapshots and diary from her years at the sanitarium. (In some ways, though she was ill, it was not an altogether terrible experience; she had first-class food and medical treatment, and many of the patients were well educated and interesting.)


The visual starting point for this project came to the surface shortly after my father died in 1986, when I saw a newspaper report that hospital workers were leaving the trays of people with AIDS in the halls unattended to. I knew I had some thoughts on being stigmatized; so, with the dried rose petals I'd saved from my father's funeral casket and the diary of my mom, I started.

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The creative process included experimenting with making negatives of photographs and writing on X-rays, since they are a major factor in TB diagnosis.

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When I was an assistant for painter/photographer David Hockney at the Ansel Adams Workshops in California, he encouraged me to expand some of the collages to include symbols that spoke of the hidden. I added the unknown person behind the turban. Activist Eric Marcus helped me contact Barbara Cleaver, whose son Scott died of AIDS in 1984, and she sent me her notes from talks, reflections, and family snapshots to work with. To show her hairdresser profession symbolically, I chose bobby pins.

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I also used block printing to give the AIDS section a more contemporary feel.

As a photographer, I'd been questioning the documentary genre's effectiveness in dealing with social issues. I studied the powerful effect of W. Eugene and Aileen Smith's Minamata — a black & white photography project exposing the deformities resulting from pollution by a factory in Japan. They seamlessly mixed religious and political sensibilities. I was inspired to infuse this project with such elements, through text and graphics. At the time of its creation I was invited to the Breadloaf Writers' Workshop and was guided by writers to read the Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, where I learned how prayer, litany, and journal writings made her more sympathetic to suffering. It was a pivotal step in choosing the diary format for this work.


I chose the somewhat crude, handmade, family-album look for the collages to achieve this effect, and creatively attempted to assign visual interaction between the present and past verbally and visually.


The photography historian Estelle Jussim wrote about my work, "Troeller's photomontages partake of a dream-like vividness. Their mythic beauty, sensitivity, and visual drama stay in the memory. Their simple words echo in the imagination. What she achieved is an art that insinuates both information and emotion in our consciousness."


The combination of educational and emotional power of these images has had political impact with my exhibitions in art galleries and museums. In Finland the government was putting a stamp of "HIV" in the passports of HIV-positive citizens. When I showed the TBAIDS DIARY there in the early 1990s it triggered a discussion over that stigmatizing practice; eventually the government ended it.


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This is the newspaper article that appeared the day after my show opened in the Helsinki Sanomat.

When I showed it at Houston Fotofest International 1990, in the show "Testimonies: Photography and Social Issues” curated by photography critic A. D. Coleman, it led to an invitation to exhibit by Juan Alberto Gaviria, Gallery Director, Centro Colombo Americana in Medellin, 1992, where the diary text was translated into Spanish. They traveled the show to Cali where the organizers of the 1994 Havana Biennial saw it and invited me to Cuba.  I joined a unique delegation of artists with a revolutionary orientation from South Africa, Liberia, and Maoriland for the opening.

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My exhibition in Havana led Cubans to knock on my hotel door in the middle of the night to see if I could help them make contact to Castro's government, which was quarantining those with HIV. Through my art contacts I was able to speak with community leaders to assist their quest to visit "hidden" relatives. Betty Klausner, from Art in America, wrote of the Cuba show in October, 1994, "The photo/text work was prevalent among the American entries in the exhibition titled 'Art, Power, Marginality' at the Cabana Fortress. Pieces by Pat Ward Williams, Linda Troeller and Karen Atkinson were strikingly emotional and direct."



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In Cuba they had quarantine zones, and this image alludes to that fear; it was considered here in the U.S. as well, but our health organizations and government did not go in this direction.


When the TB-AIDS DIARY won the Ferguson Award from the Friends of Photography they sent an announcement press release to universities. The deans wanted to educate students on the dangers of AIDS, and contacted me to exhibit as part of World Wide AIDS DAY, then in development. The show and my lecture played a pivotal role in Yale University's Day Without Art, involving students in contributing to the topic.


For gallery exhibitions I present large 20x24-inch color Polaroid prints, but I also made 20 sets of a smaller version with the Ilford Repro System to circulate to hospitals and locations that didn't have the installation options a professional art show. These photographs are hung without frames, yet present a handsome show. At all my exhibitions, I required organizers to have educational brochures available, to build AIDS awareness.


My success in publishing this work in France evolved from the efforts of Nathalie Emprin, my gallerist at Galerie Suzel Berna in Paris.

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Her shows led my photo agency, Agence Vu, to exhibit the DIARY at La Defense in Paris in 1995 where I participated in a dialogue for European photographers on publishing personal art.


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By this time the TB-AIDS DIARY had been the subject of a feature article in the New York Times. It also ran as a photo-essay in the Sunday Magazine of the Philadelphia Inquirer, reaching millions of viewers as well as the Sunday Magazine section of Newsday.

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It was featured in stories such as U.S. News, March 27, 1989 that discussed how many committed artists who had addressed the subject had died of AIDS, such as Robert Mapplethorpe.


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The DIARY was then shown at the Contemporary Art Museum at Columbia College in Chicago. The exhibition curators added their interpretation, as you can see here: They painted the walls chocolate brown and added white, wider frames, which was effective.

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I was chosen to be the keynote speaker at the AIDS Conference in Nashville and chosen Women of Achievement by Douglass College in 1991, which raised my profile as a commentator on this subject, a most useful result of those honors.


This brought TV, newspaper and magazine articles, with editions in fourteen languages. It was reviewed first by Vince Alletti in the Village Voice in his "Picks of the Week," which brought a tremendous attendance to the show.

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Nancy Brokaw wrote about the work in the Photo Review, Spring 1990. She said, "The importance of this work's message is . . . a request for recognition of the human being among the labels."


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Through the organization Curatorial Assistance, the show was touring to colleges and international photography expositions. Then the Library of Congress and American Express collected it. It also was part of two programs in Germany at this time, the one of the Hygiene Museum in Dresden and another from Klinik Bad Sulza, "Aids Awareness." It was shown at the Greece Photography Festival in Athens in 1998. (During the late 1990's curators, activists, and gay artists with HIV directed much of the dissemination of information on the topic of AIDS in the U.S., focusing the art world specifically on HIV-infected people's art and their own stories.


After the tour, the show was stored in my studio until 1999. While I was a guest professor at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Denise McGarvey, the curator of the Stockton College art gallery, saw the project and chose to exhibit the TB-AIDS DIARY along with photographer Paola Ferrari's work on aging, a project titled "Inheritance: the Elder Relatives Series." This two-person show served as the focus of a panel on "Art and Social Concerns."


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The event inspired me to offer a course there, "Healing Images," that I also taught at Parsons School of Design in New York City. From this work and my "Healing Waters" book and exhibition I have learned how photographers might strategize informational, transformative, and shocking approaches for art documentary. In this class I present ways in which transformative images have the power to bring on well being or the desire for it, predicated upon connecting the viewer to oneness or a source of healing. Photographers Sebastião Salgado, James Nachtwey, and Antonin Kratochvil make photographs of the plight of the desperately ill and war-torn regions that go beyond a document. Their black & white photos are mystical, encoded by atmosphere and light; yet educate the public on disability and environmental toxins. The pictures show doctors, injuries, and a scarred region. These photographs and the style of the TB-AIDS DIARY are empowered by a creative approach that has the ability to dream forward the subject for the viewers and transport them to a response or to a goal.


When Jean Mason interviewed me about my mother's TB-sanitarium life last fall, it was clear to us that the TB-AIDS DIARY was still a poignant view of these issues.

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Our inspiration to show the work here at Ryerson, with the support of Don Snyder and this department, was a foreshadowing of the announcement at the World Aids Conference in Toronto that seventy-five percent of people infected with HIV in some countries are also sick with life-threatening TB. Stephen Lewis, the United Nations Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa, went on to say that "Governments and the international community must recognize that they've got on their hands two simultaneous and interrelated catastrophes. And that is true worldwide, wherever the two interact. So, we must confront both together. We need more resources, we need more diagnostics, we need better drugs, and we need the HIV and TB components working together."



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I have with me some images from the TB hospitals of the soldiers who contracted TB during WWI around 1921. So you can see how well they were treated in convalescence — rest and air on the porches, good food, and psychological caring —- all for the improvement of the immune system. Still, not all survived, as there were not yet antibiotics.



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Later, in the late 1940s, still before antibiotics, a promotional photo-essay was made about how the government social workers searched for and assisted people who might be infected, to help prevent the spread of TB to the larger population.



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Today we have life-saving drugs for TB, yet the poor have little financial access to these antibiotics. The sick living in poverty do not have the regular meals and care needed to endure the demands of taking scheduled medication. How can we offer this kind of shelter to the poor? What daily lifestyle is being provided to the 12 million children without parents due to AIDS and TB in Africa? Stigma has shifted, including now the shame of being HIV-infected along with having a disease of the disenfranchised.


The mass media have provided world coverage of an increasing number of photo essays by photographers on the subject of the AIDS crisis. We've seen projects on HIV and prostitution that bring awareness and support.


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In 2003 a major compilation book, film and exhibition, Pandemic AIDS, was opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona and the Museum of Art in Pretoria, South Africa. It traveled to the UN last year for World Wide AIDS Day.

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This is the cover and one of the pages of the book. There are 124 works by 100 international artists, including myself, representing fifty countries. The exhibition not only illuminated the struggle against the epidemic, the tragedies and triumphs, but it also revealed the range of responses to a disease that has thoroughly altered the way we look at life, the body, and personal relationships. The project provided sustenance in the face of tragedy, but was too short-lived. There are so many more cities and venues that would have benefited from its dialogue; but it has already finished its travel due to lack of funding.


To support AIDS awareness, photographers can make a difference by making available prints to raise money through AIDS auctions for charity. I have donated many of these images, and also provide free picture-rights usage to certain media to publish on the topic.

When one can pinpoint the most appropriate image that crosses with the culture's needs, there is an expanded chance for publication.


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For example, this photo symbolizing how the infection stigmatizes the ill and their families -- a concern that was on the public's mind in the early 90s, as families were learning how to live with the disease. AIDS not only damages the person who is ill, but infiltrates the whole family and community.



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This collage has a man is surrounded by an image of an African child at the old-fashioned TB X-ray machine. The image highlights the historic battle of TB that has been fought in 3rd-world countries and is now a part of AIDS.



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As AIDS and TB spread to new regions, the chain of disgrace from stigma begins anew. This excerpted image from one of my collages suggests the trauma it inflicts.


I hope by sharing The TB-AIDS DIARY's exhibition and media history I can make it a catalyst for your own projects. I would like to answer questions and make recommendations for you in a few minutes, after I close with a short American Indian ceremony.


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Here, surrounded by children of the Third World, you see Brother Roger, the founder of Taise, a non-denominational retreat center attended by thousands of young people each week in France. He believes that people's consciousnesses today are much more sensitive to what the human family is living throughout the world. In that way, a beautiful mutation is at work. I'd like to continue on this theme of togetherness by introducing you to the Knot Ceremony, a gift from the American Indian Sisterhood of Agnes Whistling Elk and Ruby Plenty Chiefs, as told to Lynn V. Andrews.


Each of you received a red and white ribbon, red which symbolizes AIDS and the white symbolizes TB. We each can tie into a knot in our ribbon to make a wish that is meaningful to you about the TB-AIDS epidemic. Perhaps a wish about what you can do with your photography, or your position in the community, or just a heartfelt wish for the healing of someone you know or someone you don't. Please exchange it with someone near you, as a symbol of how each of us in some way is responsible for one another's wishes. Such gestures put us in harmony with the universe.


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We are not talking just statistics when we say millions are dying. We're talking about people of flesh and blood. We're talking about someone who is somebody's son, somebody's father, and somebody's brother. It is people who can laugh, who can cry. It is people who can be cured, who can have life extended. We defeated Nazism. We defeated communism, and recently we defeated apartheid. We can certainly defeat TB and AIDS.

— Archbishop Desmond Tutu


There is a website: http://www.nearbycafe.com/artandphoto/cafegallery/troeller/index.html

has a slide show and papers written about it.  I hope you will take a look at it.     




Linda Troeller Hotel Chelsea 222 W 23rd St.  NY NY 10011       mail to:lindatroeller@gmail.com



Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear, Riverhead Books, 2002, page 3.


"Breath," a poem by Jonathan Berger, published in Avec, 2006. Avec was a project of the Every Thing Goes Book Café and Neighborhood Stage on Staten Island

(www.etgstores.com/bookcafe/). This issue of the journal was organized by The Sepoy Rebellion, the poetry-performance group of which A. D. Coleman is a founding member (sepoyrebellion.com).


The Life and Vision of Brother Roger of Taize, by Katherine Spink, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge Publications, 2005, second edition.