HOW DO YOU respond to a person you love deeply – have loved deeply for many years – when you know they are slipping away from you? This is the central underlying thread in The Ward, a book of photographs by Gideon Mendel published in Britain by Trolley Books that will haunt you with the open-hearted love and beauty it represents. Paging through this book gives you the same rush as you get from seeing Michelangelo’s Pietà. It’s about love, personified.
It’s also about history. Without Mendel’s tenacity and deeply honed reputation for important, sensitive work, this body of photographs would not have happened. It documents the final days of four British men, John, Andre, Steven and Ian. Shortly after these photographs were taken, in 1993, they each died from symptoms associated with HIV/Aids. And they each were ciphers of the panic and denialism that the world was going through at the time, to hide the cause of death because it represented stigma and the age-old plague-based fear that was tainting an understanding of the fragility of gay men in the face of this illness.
It seems bizarre to think about this, 25 years later, when Aids is a manageable condition and no longer a life sentence or something associated with a shunnable stigma. Indeed, the true identity of these purpose-designed wards where the photographs are focused, the Broderip and Charles Bell wards in London’s Middlesex Hospital, which came into being as a part of the Positive Lives project in a pre-antiretroviral world, were hidden from common sight. And even the plaque that Princess Diana had unveiled when they were launched, was carefully secreted behind a pot plant, lest the world should realise these were they. Aids patients.
Meticulously designed, this book is small on the hand but big on the heart. The texts that interleave the photographs are not slavish descriptions of the art and craft of the photography. Indeed, the images are not even captioned. The texts are brief, almost to the point of being terse. But they speak in the voices of the different people who supported the project. The doctors. The siblings. The nurses. In doing so, the text doesn’t muscle its way into your reading of these astonishingly fine images, printed in black and white, shot in hospital wards. Like Mendel’s photographs of flood victims, the images are immensely quiet. There’s a gentle uncomprised robustness in how love is reflected here; the individual photographs are never intrusive or sensationalist or easy, for that reason.
To an extent, they are about the four men in this ward, but they’re also about you. And me. And the way in which we are able to love our loved ones, with an honesty that is unabashed and generous.
- The Ward comprises photographs by Gideon Mendel and text by Jane Anderson, Denise Barulis, Jane Bruton, Robert Chevara, Duncan Churchill, Julian Clary, Ade Fakoya, Sarah Macauley, Stephen Mayes, Chris Mazeika, Rob Miller, Angelina Namiba, Sir Nick Partridge, Chris Sandford, Lyndall Stein, Barbara von Barsewisch, Shamil Wanigaratne and Heather Wilson. It is designed by Jamie Shaw and published by Trolley Ltd, Great Britain (2017).
- Read this column for a commentary on Aids denialism and how we can read Gideon Mendel’s work for this generation.