There’s no guidebook for dealing with ones own mortality. While many philosophers and poets have attempted to communicate the experience, their efforts invariably fail to capture the visceral fear, dread, and pain when it’s your own potential demise in question. Everybody copes in his own way when confronting the end, be it from old age or a deadly virus. Photographer Adrain Chesser chose to make art that reveals the gravity of his circumstances through the eyes of those closest to him.
After Chesser’s test came back HIV positive, and he was diagnosed with AIDS, the photographer dealt with the task of informing his friends and family by turning the experience into a portrait series. Doing so, however, required a bit of deception. Chesser invited each of his loved ones over to his studio, one by one, to participate in an unnamed project. Little did they know that the project would hinge upon their own reactions to some devastating news. The photographer began each of the 47 sessions by saying “I have something to tell you,” then he shot two rolls of 36 exposure film of the subject processing the information in his or her own way.
“I have always pursued art and photography as a kind of spiritual practice, a sacred occupation, a way to understand and interpret my life,” Chesser says. “When I thought about having to disclose my illness to my friends, I would panic, which didn’t make sense, because I have an amazing group of friends who are all very loving and supportive. I realized that these intense emotions where actually based in my childhood fear of abandonment. It occurred to me that if I ritualized the act of telling, that it might be possible to transform these childhood fears that were still affecting me as an adult.”
Each portrait in the series titled “I Have Something to Tell You” is colored with a different shade from an emotion palette. There’s sadness in every one of them, but this feeling appears intermingled with anger, disbelief, empathy, confusion, and something like betrayal. No matter what’s in the foreground, though, it’s the subtext that makes the images feel like such a punch to the gut: they feel undeniably, unspeakable real. Viewing these photos is a confrontational, voyeuristic, almost intrusive glimpse into a life, rendered by those who are in that life’s orbit.
“It was never my intention to ‘capture the moment,'” Chesser says. “My intention was to create a ritual that would help heal a deep-seated emotional trauma. I created a sacred space and a ritual around the telling. The backdrop is the curtains that hung in the living room in the house I grew up in. We were both seated facing each other. There were tears and laughter and above all there was love. In the end there was no abandonment, and I was able to heal something profound from my childhood.”
These inner wounds are not the only ones to heal either; Chesser’s doctors have recently informed him that his immune system is now normal for someone his age.
Have a look through more of the photos from this series in the slides above.