By Krysse Barbosa
What is a runner without their legs? A painter without their hands? A photographer without their sight? This is the story of Kurt Weston a photographer who lost his ability to see and his beautiful journey of perseverance. Life is made up of moments that lead to choices that make up who we are. The moment a young boy from Chicago found an old twin lens reflex camera stored away in his grandmother's basement was one vital moment in this young artist's life. Which led to his decision to sign up for the new photography class at his high school. After two degrees and a successful life in the world of fashion and art photography came one of the hardest moments he would face. Kurt Weston was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS which led to a significant loss of eyesight marking him legally blind, but it could’ve been worse. The photographer’s diagnosis was devastating, but moreso was the news that he had a mere 6 months to live. What is a photographer without his eye? And now without his life? Well, we will get to that.
Kurt was more than excited when he heard that his high school was adding a photography class. As you can imagine, he was one of the first to sign up, and quickly he was mesmerized by the alchemy he found in photography. Further into the year, Weston had his eye set on art colleges. Particularly, a major in Art and Photography at Northern Illinois University, but after sharing this with his parents he had to switch gears. They didn’t forbid it, but warned him that they wouldn’t support him financially if he did decide to take up the major. Dissuaded by his parents’ conditions, Weston decided to major in Fashion Merchandising which turned out to be more useful than expected. After he obtained this degree, he decided to put his passion first and in 1983 he registered for a Bachelor of Arts degree in photography at Columbia College in Chicago.
During his time at Columbia College in the early 1980's the punk and new wave scene was at its height and performance art was at its rawest. Kurt says how positive this was to his career and his passion for the art form. Inspired by the artistic movement and his true love for the genre of Portraiture, he would collaborate and capture most of his subjects at the clubs and performance art spaces. One of his most prized experiences was collaborating with performance artist, John Bussa, who would regularly perform at The Randolph Street Gallery in Chicago. That was also where famous gallerist, Hudson (known for his gallery in New York City named, Feature Inc.) got his start before moving to the big apple and becoming well known in the industry. Kurt looked up to Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, and Victor Skrebneski, all portraiture photographers who pushed the conceptual boundaries and used incredible lighting techniques.
After he graduated Columbia, all Kurt wanted was a paying gig in photography. Both his degree in photography and fashion merchandising helped him land his first opportunity as an assistant to commercial photographer, (Frank Misek, of Chicago based studio, "Stephens, Biondi, and Deccio"). Two years later, he became a freelance fashion photographer for various glamour and style magazines while working full time at Pivot Point International. Pivot Point, was an international school for hair design & makeup artistry where Weston was responsible for most of the photographs used in the school's various publications which included books, magazines, and style selectors. Kurt’s life had reached a high point with his career in fashion photography, and nothing could take this away from him.
Kurt Weston's life as a photographer shifted to a pause when he was diagnosed in 1991 with HIV/AIDS. In 1993 was when he started to lose his vision due to the AIDS related condition of Cytomegalovirus retinitis. The doctors told him he was in the end stages of the disease by 1995 and said he would be lucky to live for about six more months. With his health in such critical condition and rapid vision loss, he stopped photographing and took his brother's invitation to move to California. In January 1996 his condition worsened. Kurt became legally blind, and undertook the most visible side effect of the fatal disease - Kaposi's Sarcoma - that manifests as purplish red lesions all over the person’s face and body. Later into the year things started to take a turn for Weston. There was a breakthrough treatment of Antiretroviral medications that he started to take and helped him recover almost immediately.
When Kurt realized his plans had changed and that he would survive the disease, he found himself facing the challenge of living this life that awaited him. He started taking classes at the Braille Institute and the Junior Blind of America, and obtained assistance from the California Department of Rehabilitation for the Blind where he learned about low vision magnification devices, and adaptive computer technologies. It took him a couple of years to adapt to these new circumstances. From the time he heard of his critical state until now, Kurt had not touched a camera. When he started to feel more confident he began to play around with the idea of going back to photography. Although, it wasn’t until Kurt suffered another tragic loss in 1998 that he took on the challenge.
Kurt's Vietnamese partner, Va, had just passed away from the AIDS related lymphoma. The president of the Asian Pacific Crossroads group at their local gay and lesbian community center, then asked him to photograph for a calendar that would be used for a fundraising effort. Kurt told us that when they asked him he nearly had a panic attack, but agreed to photograph two of the models. After the group saw his photographs they pleaded with him to photograph the entire calendar, and so he did. The success with the calendar was what pushed him to start showing his work in group art exhibitions and galleries. Kurt didn’t stop there though.
Reclaiming his post as a photographer after the loss of his vision, his loved ones, and almost his own life, he extended his work into advocacy for the disabled’s full inclusion and access to the arts, and for those living the daily battle of HIV/AIDS. Due to the inescapable retreat of Weston’s work as a photographer, his passion for the art form expanded as he found its precedence in his new life. “As a person living with AIDS I face the prospect of a greatly reduced life span and deal with threat and decay daily. It has been a bitter battle just to stay in this world, so I am not about to flinch or look away. The arts have provided me the opportunity to act as a political and social practitioner, representing aspects of my own and my subjects’ disabilities. Being disabled in society lends me a perspective on the specific human experiences of marginalization, exclusion and forms of oppression.” He started his path as an advocate when he left work in 1993 on disability and founded SWAN (Surviving With AIDS Network). SWAN is a grassroots organization that has provides a platform for people to discuss what therapies they were experimenting with and their effectiveness. Since it was still an early part of the epidemic and with little hope for those infected, organizations such SWAN were of vital importance. Kurt brought in professionals ranging from (alternative and orthodox) medical practitioners to make-up artists who he knew from past work connections, to further inform the group of new treatments and to teach how to cover up the visible side effects of the disease, Kaposi’s sarcoma (purplish-red lesions). These professionals would assist in helping the community live with these new daily circumstances without feeling completely defeated.
In 2012, Weston earned CNN’s i-Report Award for Best Personal Story as a result of volunteering his time as an HIV/AIDS prevention speaker where he was telling his life story to High School and College Students. Weston participated as an artist and advisor for various organizations such as; the international arts organization VSA Arts, the National Arts and Disabilities Center, and the California Art Council. In 2003 he assisted these organizations with the groundbreaking, Hire Value Conferences - Careers in the Arts of People with Disabilities. Then in 2005 at the Marshall B. Ketchum University, he founded the Shared Visions art exhibition featuring the Art of blind and visually impaired artists which is now in its 12th year, becoming an International exhibition. That same year he assisted the AIDS Service Foundation of Orange County with the Unfinished Works exhibition at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art. His work is also included in the permanent collection of the National AIDS museum, and in the Visual AIDS Archive Project (co-founded by David Hirsch and Frank Moore in 1994), with a mission to preserve visual records of the work created by artists that were HIV positive.
The magnifiers and adaptive computer technologies have made it possible for Weston to continue his work, as well as pursue his graduate degree as a legally blind photographer from California State University, Fullerton in 2008. So what is a photographer without his eye? In Kurt Weston’s case a world class artist with an endless list of experience, passion, and perseverance.
Kurt’s Advice to artists who relate to his story:
“My advice for those artists who are HIV positive and disabled is to respect yourself and your body. Life is such an amazing gift, hold life consciously, Also, consider being an activist. In our current political environment disability rights, programs and funding are being challenged. Don’t hesitate to be involved or to use your art as a vehicle. Art as protest can be very helpful in steering public opinion.” He also advised for those visually impaired to consider going to blind organizations in your community to see what resources they can provide. With various ophthalmological problems that cause visual impairment, and the wide range of technologies which can be extremely beneficial. It is important to find the one that is designed for your specific impairment. Recommended by Weston himself as a great national organization is the American Council of the Blind. It has a chapter in every state, and hosts conventions which showcase the latest vision enhancement devices.