Participating in and viewing the Brighton AIDS Memorial Project has been a cathartic experience.
The project’s organic development and sensitively curated collection of images, personal stories and recollections, historical ephemera and the passionate aim to preserve and portray authentic community history has been a life changer.
The project’s growing collection of stories and images reflecting the local community response to HIV – especially in the early days and at the height of the pandemic is invaluable, as sadly so much of what was intended to be preserved seems to have been lost by other custodians over the decades.
I am a gay man born and living in Brighton, first active on the scene in my teens, and in the late 1980s acquired HIV by the age of 21. I have long yearned for some community HIV resource to reflect the local history of the people, experiences, community, places, and support that were such formative parts of my early adulthood and thereafter.
“Of the people I knew who feature in the project, their lives were often far from perfect, their illnesses were often complicated, long and distressing.”
Over the years I’m fortunate and grateful to have had opportunities to tell my personal story of multiple bereavement and loss to HIV, and to publically remember the people who I loved and were close. But nothing prepared me for the powerful impact of viewing the growing collection of images and stories that the Brighton AIDS Memorial holds.
To be reminded of names, see again the detail in the faces of friends and acquaintances that had faded over the years, and hear the stories of people I hadn’t met but have become more familiar with all resonate now. Reflections of the history of a community mobilisation – challenges and successes, and the politics that sometimes evoked, has helped to fill some of the gaps in memory of living with HIV for over 30 years.
Importantly, it has also helped to alleviate a sense of aloneness and sadness that I, and only I, would be left to remember and celebrate the lives of so many people I loved, knew and cared about. Even if I may now be the only person living who knew them well, some of presence survives through the stories and images the project holds. When I talk with others about Gary, David, Steve, and so on, I can also say ‘look – there’s more of their life and experiences, and others here’. It feels very good to know that exists.
To have participated in this project, point others to it and importantly to have been able to talk about real life experiences has been hugely empowering on so many levels. It seems to me that we now live in such a glossy, media centred world, where slickness and image often reign, and where the authentic, often complicated and sometimes imperfect nature of people’s true life stories can easily be undervalued and overlooked.
“The project’s growing collection of stories and images reflecting the local community response to HIV – especially in the early days and at the height of the pandemic is invaluable, as sadly so much of what was intended to be preserved seems to have been lost by other custodians over the decades.”
Like many others, I often watch the HIV television dramas. But for me, nothing – absolutely nothing – has the equivalent meaning, nor does it evoke memory, emotion and empathy in the same way that genuine stories of lived experience do.
Of the people I knew who feature in the project, their lives were often far from perfect, their illnesses were often complicated, long and distressing. Not looking through rose tinted spectacles, people sometimes didn’t cope well.
But a strong and true thread runs through all of those I have viewed, that people were loved, our community cared and responded. For this response to have happened, and now to be heard and seen again I am proud.