Proof positive

Terrance Gilbert combated the stigma of HIV by turning his camera on himself

HIV?IN?FOCUS | Gilbert’s photo essay is part of a series by queer black artsis. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

When Terrance Omar Gilbert takes a look at himself, he does it in dramatic fashion. It’s not with a mirror that he gazed into the man he is, but through a lens. At 18, Gilbert was diagnosed with HIV; by 24, his body had deteriorated to 110 pounds before he got on medication. That’s when he decided to use his camera to document his body’s reaction and transformation.

“It’s very difficult, but those early pictures are something I have to look at in order to appreciate where I am now,” says the 25-year-old photographer. “I look back at them and think about how I felt and the pain I was in. I see a skeleton.”

In Gilbert’s petite body, now 40 pounds healthier, lies a dynamo. He struggled initially after the diagnosis, suffering depression and a sense of dread along with coping with the stigma of having HIV — which, in his African-American culture, was an added burden. But he opted not to be seen as a victim. Instead, he strived for self-awareness and empowerment. That resolve led him to point the camera at himself, where he could gain something even more important: Knowledge.
“Never once was I exposed to proper sex education in school, so I educated myself,” he says. “For me to go in and do research, now that I work professionally in the field, that makes me have a passion to help anyone. And honestly, I can do that through pictures.”

Gilbert teamed with Fahari Arts Institute for their “Arts and AIDS” season, which addresses the disease through African-American perspectives. Gilbert was set to debut his photographic essay for the Poz Eyes exhibit in April, but there was a bump in the road.

“That didn’t happen as planned,” Fahari artistic director Harold Steward says. “But we’re reworking it and intend to have Terrance’s work up maybe by the end of summer.”

The intent of Poz Eyes is to feature exhibits by queer, poz black artists in solo shows. The rescheduling, however, worked in Gilbert’s favor: His pictorial essay is perpetually evolving, and he has added photos to his work.

“My goal is to do a day, to six months, to a year with this project,” he says. “And the year wrap up would roughly be around October. I have done portions of it at conferences and as well as the Positive Youth Conference which will be here in August.”

The photos range from abstract images of himself to daily living to visits to his doctor.

But Gilbert just isn’t about his pictures. Although it’s his artistic expression, he’s been an advocate for education and awareness with intent on teaching people his age, notably African-Americans, the language of HIV and the preventive nature people can approach it with. In Houston, he worked with Empowerment as an introduction to AIDS advocacy work. Upon moving to Dallas, he transferred to United Black Ellument to expand his work. He is now the Youth Ambassador for the Anthony Chisom AIDS Foundation, which the organization announced last Monday.

Although he speaks in a professional and serious demeanor, Gilbert chuckles at his own vanity and admits to pulling out the camera for random photos of himself to post on Facebook.
“I have like 1,300 pictures on there, and, like, 1,200 are of me,” he laughs.

The photographer who had been taking pictures since he was a child has the philosophy that every picture tells a story.  And his own story turns out to be one of the most compelling — and not just for him. Gilbert is documenting not only his own life, but also the face of HIV in a younger generation.

“I found this was my calling,” he says.

For more on Gilbert’s photography work, visit  TrademarkFotography.Blogspot.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 1, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens