HIV Survival Story: Duane Cramer
The photographer uses his HIV+ status to make a difference.
It would have been easy for Duane Cramer to feel defeated when he was diagnosed with HIV 17 years ago. The celebrity photographer, who lost his father to HIV 10 years prior to being diagnosed, instead turned his misfortune into a chance to make a difference, serving as an activist for HIV awareness and prevention.
Cramer has recently collaborated with Project Runway designer Mondo Guerra and Merck for a national education campaign called Project I Design to bring awareness to the HIV community. Cramer spoke to Loop21 to share his experience of living with the disease and offers advice on how we can tackle the disease.
Loop21: What went through your mind when you were first diagnosed with HIV?
Duane Cramer: I was shocked and scared. Luckily, I was educated and I knew that there were different therapies that would enable me to live a long life. I wasn’t really fearful of dying, but I was more fearful of the unknown, like what effects the medications might have and what it was to going to be like to have to eventually disclose my status to my family and other people.
Loop21: How has having HIV affected your daily life?
DC: Having HIV has affected me because I look at things through a HIV lens. It has made me realize that we never know how long our life is going to be, so everyday and every moment is really precious. I think it is important for me to do what I can with my experience of living with HIV to educate people, especially young people. I want to try to keep people HIV negative and to encourage people with HIV to be open and honest with themselves. Have meaningful dialogues with their treatment providers and loved ones in order for them to be as healthy as they can be. The message that Mondo and I are sending out to people is to encourage meaningful, open and honest dialogue with their doctors so they can figure out a treatment plan that’s going to work for them.
Loop21: Can you tell us about Project I Design?
DC: Right now it’s in the second year and we have been talking to different community groups around the country, from small groups to very large groups. Most recently, we went to the U.S. Conference for AID in New Orleans and we both had the opportunity to speak and do a presentation in front of more than 2,500 people. We also got to interact one-on-one with young people who came to our booth.
Loop21: Why did you want to turn your personal experience into a tool for advocacy?
DC: Initially, it was a challenge because my father died of AIDS 27 years ago when he was the Associate Dean at the business school at Howard. Well, 27 years ago the only people you saw in the news and in the media with AIDS were white gay men, so my sisters and I were worried and scared to be associated with something that really didn’t seem to fit who my father was. There was so much shame and guilt that we told people that he died of cancer, so we were silent for a while. It wasn’t until after my mother, sisters, and I did a panel for my father in The Name Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington D.C. that we were out and open about the fact that he had died of AIDS. Then 10 years later I became infected with HIV and at that point I realized that the only way I was going to be able to turn what most people would see as a negative thing into a positive, was to talk about it. That’s when I started to actively get involved and speaking to young people. I used my creative talents as a photographer to be active both in front of and behind the campaign in creating images that accurately and authentically reflected black people, so that we could get the interest and educate people on the ways that they can keep themselves HIV negative and healthy.
Loop21: How have some of the stigmas associated with HIV changed over the years?
DC: First, now all the statistics are out there. Even though 27 years ago the focus in the media was on white gay men, black men and women were dying at high rates as well. Our focus wasn’t there yet and now what has happened is all the facts have come out and the focus has really shifted because that’s were the highest rates of HIV is. It’s in black women, black men who have sex with men, and black young people. There has been a reality check and now we need to talk about this. I feel like now people are talking about it more and the dialogue is more open between boyfriends and girlfriends about their sexual practices, their HIV status and other health issues. I also think that people know how to protect themselves better and it’s through education that we become more powerful and can advocate for ourselves. You also see more communication in social media and advertisements that are out there, so I think its a good change.
Loop21: In what ways do you think people can become more involved in bringing awareness to HIV?
DC:There are so many different things that people can do. You can make a pledge to talk to a loved one about HIV or AIDS. World AIDS Day is coming up and it would be great if a person could sit down with someone and explain its relevance. I think everyday people have the opportunity to sit down and open up to loved ones because HIV and AIDS is so big that most families have been affected, so one thing you can do is provide support. Also, I think people can help loved ones prepare a list for their doctors. Like I said before, I think there are so many different things, and even little things, that can be done everyday to really help out.
Loop21:What advice would you give to someone who has been diagnosed with HIV?
DC: I would tell them that they are not alone. I would tell them that they are still able to have a long, healthy, and productive life if they really take care of themselves, have open dialogue with their doctors to figure out the treatment plans that would work best for them, and to really have a positive attitude. I attribute my own personal health to having a lot of love in my life, having the support of people around me, and being open and honest. It is when we harp on things that we create unnecessary struggles in our lives and that’s where we run into problems. The key is to let people know that they aren’t alone, that there are a lot of resources out there to help them, and there are a lot of great organizations out there. When I was first diagnosed with HIV my mother said if it wasn’t this it could have been cancer or you could have been hit by a car, who knows, the point is we all have challenges in our lives, but it is about how you deal with them, how you react to them that enable us to live.
Loop21: In the future, what changes do you hope to see happen in the HIV community?
DC: I think that people need to be kind to one another. I think we need to continue the awareness and education because we want the people who are negative, negative and the people who are HIV positive to be healthy and lead positive,productive lives. It’s all about caring and loving one another. I think that when we are kind, better things will come. I know that we will beat AIDS and we will be celebrating in the not so distant future. I am going to continue to do what I can to end HIV and AIDS and if everyone can make one small pledge to do what they can, we can beat this.
Visit Project I Design for more information about the new HIV awareness campaign.