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Is Potato Salad Really More Important Than AIDS Activism?

Is Potato Salad Really More Important Than AIDS Activism?

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A Kickstarter project seeking $10 to make potato salad has earned $55,492, while one documenting people living with HIV or protesting for the rights of those with AIDS languishes. Is that fair?

This month, I decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund a coffee table book of portraits of AIDS activists, primarily members of ACT UP chapters in the U.S. and Europe, which I photographed between 1989 and 1998. I called it the AIDS Activist Project, which I started at the height of the epidemic because too many people either demonized or were afraid of people with AIDS. I decided recently to publish this book because I saw that apathy about AIDS was returning.

I guess I had no idea how deep that apathy was. Half way through my Kickstarter campaign, pledges currently amount to one-sixth of the needed funding. (The campaign ends on October 10. According to Kickstarter rules, if I do not raise the entire budget, I must return everything pledged thus far.)

I have spent the last two weeks reaching out to hundreds of friends and strangers alike, asking for donations. And I watched the pledges trickle in. And then stop.

This week, I happened to notice that another Kickstarter campaign focused on making potato salad  drew 6,911 backers in August for a total of $55,492 in pledges. The guy who created the campaign was only looking for a total donation of $10.

I may not the sharpest tool in the shed. Maybe I don’t really understand social media. Maybe I don’t really understand today’s priorities. But, could somebody explain to me how a project about potato salad can out-fund a book project about AIDS activism?

I understand potato salad: it can be made with mayonnaise, yogurt, mustard or olive oil, and herbs. You can use Russet potatoes, Idaho, or even fingerlings. No matter what the ingredients, It’s all delicious. Lord knows I’m not anti-potato salad. In fact, in my lifetime I’ve shoved enough potato salad down my throat to sink a Panamax tanker. But, when a fundraiser for potato salad recipes draws more money than a project about AIDS activism, then the world is in a sorry state.

But then, I should have expected this. It has always been this way. And AIDS apathy is just getting worse.

Forgive me if I sound bitter. Since the AIDS activist project was born in 1998, I’ve worked hard on this project. I really busted my ass to do this. I lugged equipment across the U.S., Europe, and Puerto Rico for photo sessions, including three equipment cases and a tripod bag with three light stands, two soft boxes, and two framed reflectors. I schlepped my equipment through the subway systems in Berlin and Paris. I froze my ass off while sleeping on floors in St. Louis. I was detained in Paris, because they thought I had a bomb in one of my cases. I hand-processed over 1,000 rolls of film, of portraits and demo images, and countless contact sheets. All the costs for film, paper, chemical, supplies were out of pocket. All the images from this project that exist today were hand-printed by me. In total, I've spent well over $20,000.

Why did I do it? Because the work of ACT UP and other AIDS groups was amazing, inspiring. I was proud to be part of it. And I felt the world needed to know these brave people. That is why I photographed them. Not only in the streets as they protested, but in these intimate photo sessions so people could see their humanity, their thoughtful sides —and their sadness. Many of the people in my portraits are just memories now. But their words — the statements they wrote to accompany the photos for my book — live on. Without these AIDS activists, the world would be a more terrible place; their actions changed the pandemic for the better.

I have to be brutally honest: I thought this book was going to be a slam dunk, that the Kickstarter campaign would attract the $47,250 in a couple of weeks. At this point I thought I’d be at the photo lab looking at proofs and preparing to get the materials together for the printer.

But, I learned something new this week: potato salad is more important than people with AIDS. Maybe it always has been and I was just too idealistic to realize that fact. Stupid me.

Part of me wants to drop the campaign and admit I failed. But, I am the guardian of these photos of comrades that died, including Hal Haner, Robert Garcia, Ilka Tanya Payan, Terry Stodgell, and many others. If I don’t have half of their courage, bravery and fight in me to take this book project to the very end, then I have failed. It’s personal and emotional for me. Periodically, through the years of working on this project, I’ve sat alone, head in my hands, crying, wondering where I would get the energy to keep going with the AIDS activist project.

Maybe I am stupid. Here’s another thing that might make me seem stupid: I am not giving up on this book. I’m going to see this through. Whatever I lose along the way, I will have gained in the end.

I have two weeks to raise $38,967 to publish this book. I am accepting pledges as modest as $5. For a mere $5, you will get your name in a beautiful and emotionally powerful book. How about skipping that double mocha latte this morning and giving your $5 to a project that you will remember a hell of a lot longer than that trip to Starbucks?

Please show the world that you care more about people with AIDS than potato salad

ACT UP! Fight back! Fight AIDS!

Aldyn McKean

See more of Bill Bytsura's photographs of AIDS activists on the following pages. >>>

Anne Northrop

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Jay Blotcher, ACT UP, NY

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