Famed Photographer Duane Cramer is Documenting Black, Gay & HIV+ Lives With his Camera

The famed photographer, who is HIV-positive, has shot celebrities, dignitaries, and everyday people. Now he’s back with a family history project and a new HIV campaign to change how we deal with the chronic condition.

BY Diane Anderson-Minshall

June 26 2013 4:00 AM ET

Long before he died, Duane Cramer’s father taped a note to the wall, which read, “Quond non est in libro, non est in mondo” (“What is not documented does not exist”).  Joe J. Cramer was a trailblazer, a black Ph.D. in theoretical accounting who served as an associate dean at Howard University. He also died of AIDS complications in 1986, a shock to Cramer’s entire family.
“Most of the images around the unnamed disease — it was later called the gay plague — were of white gay men,” the younger Cramer recalls. “Our father did not fit the stereotype of the people…shown in the media. Initially we told people that he died of cancer, because of the shame and guilt. Now the world knows that black and brown people were as disproportionately affected and infected by the AIDS virus from the earliest days — in the USA and globally — just as we continue to be today. However, the media chose to focus on the white gay community."
Cramer, now 50, was affected both by the death of his father — a man he still calls his best friend — and by that tiny note taped to the wall with a phrase that has shaped his life, career, and activism. After stints as an executive at Xerox and a marketing guru, Cramer became a world-renowned photographer whose work has appeared in publications as diverse as Vibe, The New York Times, and Harper’s Bazaar. He’s photographed celebrities, elder statesmen, and even tribal communities in Africa. But it’s the fight against HIV and AIDS that Cramer has documented best, giving voice to HIV-positive people around the globe, including 40 AIDS-affected children in Nakuru, Kenya, who later named a school, the Duane Cramer Academy, for him.
Exactly 10 years after his father’s death, Cramer, then 34, found out he too was HIV-positive. He told his former partner and his sisters, but he waited a year to tell his mother, Beedie Brazos-Cramer, a conversation that’s documented in the short film Tell Me, directed by Veronica Deliz, a part of the HIV Story Project.
“It was clear the only way we’re going to stop this disease is to talk about it, and the only way I was going to be able to fully interact with my family was to be honest,” he says, “so that they could continue to support and love me as they always had done."
Brazos-Cramer says she wishes her son had shared his status with her earlier, so she could support him. “By not sharing, [he] missed out,” she says.
Cramer says he was concerned about his mother’s reaction: “She lost her former husband to AIDS. I was fearful that she would be afraid of losing me, so I was trying to protect her.  The truth was that I was denying myself a mother’s love. My advice to others who have HIV or other potential challenges in life [is] to share with those in your family — biological and otherwise — who you can be authentic, vulnerable, and share your truth. No one needs to be alone, and there are a multitude of ways to get the support that is needed! You are not alone."