inez and vinoodh on aids awareness, rihanna and 90s new york
As the groundbreaking Dutch photography duo is honored by ACRIA, we find out more about the impact of AIDS on creative communities, and why it’s important to keep the dialogue open.
"In New York, AIDS is the number-one killer of men between the ages of twenty-five and forty. All of the professions, from Wall Street to the Washington Redskins, have been hit, but in the arts—and its stepchildren, fashion and interior design—the impact has been most visible." Michael Shnayerson wrote these words in One by One, a Vanity Fair profile revealing the devastating impact AIDS had on an entire generation of New York City's brightest creatives. Shnayerson's piece was published in early 1987, long before Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin would become two of the fashion industry's most celebrated photographers, but only months after the pioneering pair began working together in Amsterdam during the darkest days of the global pandemic.
Tomorrow night, the Dutch duo will be honored by ACRIA at the New York-based AIDS foundation's 20th annual holiday dinner. For years, Inez and Vinoodh have supported the community-driven organization by donating funds and contributing work to its benefit auctions, "work which embodies the celebration of life that ACRIA and its mission embody," says ACRIA's Benjamin Anderson Bashein. Ahead of the benefit, we spoke with Inez about why a new generation needs to embrace safe sex.
You've been working together since the mid 80s. Can you tell us more about what the larger cultural climate or dialogue surrounding HIV/AIDS was like during that moment?
Me and Vinoodh both grew up in Amsterdam, and we started working together in 1986; I was still in art school and Vinoodh had just finished art school. When you transition into those first years of adult life and start making friends with people involved in different cultural elements, you sort of step into a broader world than the one that you spend teenage-dom in. At that time, it still felt pretty mysterious; there was a very minimal amount of information available. It was this dark cloud that infiltrated cultural life and club life. But for both of us, it was the first time we really talked to people about HIV, met people that were HIV positive, or already had lost people to the disease. It was the other artists older than us working in Amsterdam that were informing us -- the young kids -- about it.
Also as a photographer, a big way of looking at and becoming informed about HIV was through the work and life of Robert Mapplethorpe. I think that was maybe the most direct influence or informative moment -- being blown away by his work, but at the same time, learning about all the things that were attached to it. From a cultural point of view and in terms of our own evolution as photographers, a lot of the information came from Mapplethorpe. At that time, he was such a huge influence on so many people, not just in photography, in the dance world or nightlife culture, too.
I know it was a number of years after those dark early days, but did you see any sort of shift in culture or conversation about HIV when you moved to New York?
We moved to New York in 95, so yes, it was about 10 years after. At that time, we were kind of convinced that people wouldn't die anymore from being infected with HIV. All our friends were saying that new treatments -- combination pill cocktails for example -- were effective and that fear of dying wasn't as strong. As time has gone on, we've learned that's not the case; information and treatment has advanced so much, but there are still people dying. One of our friends that we worked with a lot, a hairdresser that we did all our early work with -- we didn't know. At that time, there was still such an immense stigma around even saying it, and he never told us that he was HIV positive. Whenever the topic came up, friends would say 'there are medicines,', but sure enough, he passed away. People still seem to think that you take a couple pills and you live your life just as you live it -- that's just not the case.
We spoke with ACRIA recently about the work they're doing to destroy stigmatizing myths and improve the lives of positive people. What's compelled you and Vinoodh to work with the organization?
What I like about ACRIA is that their base is rooted in activism and the cultural community of New York City. It's great to see that specific group of people -- who have lost so many of their incredibly creative peers to the disease -- pull together and invest in the community through workshops and programs. I especially appreciate how they provide care and information to people who are older and live with HIV. ACRIA has a great cultural backbone and the work they do is incredible.
Why is it important to keep talking about HIV and sexual health generally?
We work with with so many young people in their early 20s, and in the case of many girls we shoot, I'm the one reminding them that their partners should always wear condoms. Every time I talk to a young girl on set and they're joking, 'Oh, I thought I was pregnant!' -- they don't seem to be that concerned with it, and that's what's scaring me a little. I think it's in the back of people's minds, but I'm getting the feeling that that message isn't strong enough today as it once was. Somehow, there needs to be another wave of information for younger people in their early 20s to understand a condom isn't optional.
That's so true. Keith Haring made safe sex and direct AIDS advocacy so central to his work, and TLC even wore them as accessories to open up a dialogue with younger fans. You and Vinoodh have worked on benefit campaigns, including shooting Rihanna for MAC's Viva Glam...
That's why I think Rihanna and MAC Viva Glam are so important. Rihanna, Miley, the people that young girls look up to and listen to -- that they put these messages out there, but maybe even more explicitly than what's happening now. That can be difficult because I think everything is taboo today, in some sense. Playboy's not showing nudes anymore, but at the same time, the general public watches everyone's sextapes! People have a hard time talking about sex to young people to begin with, but there must be ways to make open dialogue about sexual health issues clear to everyone.
Revisit i-D's interview with ACRIA on World AIDS Day. To learn more about the organization, visit here.
Text Emily Manning
Image courtesy Inez and Vinoodh