Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Painting -- & Writing -- with Light: Alina Oswald

Writing is her first love, Alina Oswald says, although she’s finding photography “another way to express what I want to say, another way of looking at things….Every time I spend too much time in the photography part of life, I start missing writing. It’s a weird feeling[, y]et I love both of them, writing AND photography, I think, in different ways.”

Still, the roots of that first love go very deep. Oswald, the author of Infinite Lights:  9/11/2001 - 9/11/2011, Vampire Fantasises:  A Collection of Vampire Photography, Journeys Through Darkness, Soul Cities, Backbone, Poetry of the Soul, The Awakening…, and The Best of MJ, began writing when she came to this country from Romania in 1991. At that point, she was, she says, simply “jotting down my (very) raw thoughts on paper”; but by 2002, she’d published her first piece, “Dark Hour Friend,” on Soon she was freelancing for a number of publications, the most prominent being Art &Understanding (A&U) --America’s AIDS Magazine. A&U dealt with HIV/AIDS-related issues, and that struck a chord with Oswald, who’d been radicalized by an AIDS conference she’d attended with her physician mother in Bucharest back in 1986.

Oswald’s first assignment for A&U was a feature interview with AIDS activist and writer Joel Rothschild (Hope: A Story of Triumph and Signals: An Inspiring Story) in October 2003. Their paths had, in a sense, been running parallel for a long time. Rothschild had been diagnosed with AIDS in April 1986, just a few days before Oswald had attended the conference back in Bucharest; by the time of their interview, he had outlived the death sentence he’d been handed by his doctor almost 17 years earlier. And he’d done it by sheer faith and determination, “scratch[ing] the surface of the Divine” and undergoing a profound spiritual metamorphosis in the process. He shared all of that with Oswald now as they talked.

She came away from their meeting transformed. When her husband, Dirk, met her back at the hotel, she recalls, “I hug him and give him a kiss. It’s not that I didn’t mean it before[, but] after having this experience with Joel, I realized you have to hang on to something more while you have it because it’s all temporary. You treasure every moment.” She notes how her friends with HIV/AIDS “don’t hang up on you without saying, ‘I love you.’ Joel’s the same way – he doesn’t leave home without patting his dogs and telling them how much they mean to him. And he does the same thing with his friends….He was the first HIV-infected person I ever stood with. I was just in awe of him, and I still am.” Rothschild, she adds, “opened my eyes to another kind of world.”

The interview was the first of many powerful pieces that Oswald would write for A&U; it was also the beginning of her involvement with the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community. “It’s impossible to write about HIV/AIDS and not get involved in the LGBT community,” she observes, “because the LGBT publications are the only ones that cover AIDS. Whenever have you seen anything about AIDS in Woman’s Day unless it’s about ‘Rent’ or those books and movies that connect more with the mainstream?”

No one would ever have branded Oswald’s stories “mainstream.” She interviewed Ntare Mwine, a photographer, playwright, and actor who had written a one-man show called “Biro” about an HIV-positive Ugandan who enters the U. S. illegally, seeking treatment. (The article became her first cover story for A&U.) She wrote about African-American women married to men “on the Down Low” – i.e.,  gay and very much in the closet. About hemophiliacs who had been infected with AIDS and/or hepatitis C through blood transfusions and “who had their houses set on fire….Some of them got kicked out of their houses and towns and had to travel to other places literally and start from scratch where people didn’t know them.”  She might not have a journalism degree, but she had something much more important -- the ability to become totally engaged in whatever topic she was working on.

"It's funny," Oswald muses, "because my husband was reading my articles in the beginning, and he would say, 'You like this guy,' 'This guy you didn't really connect too well or too much with,' or" -- she laughs -- "'This sounds fine, but there's no soul in there.'  But I usually connect with people or review a book that I like."  And she definitely connected with Rothschild and other "kindred souls" in the LGBT community.  Or, as she puts it, "You talk to them, and you forget to take notes.  As a writer, you are in awe.  And they really change your perspective in life."

She became a vastly different kind of writer. “I used to write a lot about death and being more dead than alive” – Oswald laughs at her old self – “and after I met Joel, I began writing more about AIDS.” More than a few of the pieces in her first book, Poetry of the Soul, deal not only with the disease but also with Rothschild’s “tale of triumph,/Healing and forgiveness/…Of hope.” And Journeys Through Darkness, her biography of fellow photographer Kurt Weston, tells the tale of another kind of triumph: though now legally blind from AIDS, the award-winning Weston continues to work – or, as Oswald puts it, to use “his life experience to create art that is dynamic, informing, and also transforming.”

What makes all of this so interesting, of course, is that Oswald is a straight woman  working in a non-straight community.  She has become, in her own words, "an adoptive member" of that community.  "I don't consider myself part of the mainstream,"  she says earnestly.  "For a long time, I've been struggling with this idea that society says you should be this way, and you're that way, and society is trying to change you.  Now I'm at a point in my life where I'm more comfortable with the way that I am.  I am crazy -- I'm unconventional -- I'm not mainstream.  So what?  Why I like to work with people from this community is that they don't try to change you.  They adopt you."

All this doesn't mean that she writes only about AIDS and the LGBT community, however.  Her latest books, Infinite Lights  and Vampire Fantasies,  are definite departures from her earlier work.  Infinite Lights  is, as its subtitle indicates, a collection of photographs related to 9/11.  Oswald and her husband were living in Massachusetts in 2001, but they happened to be visiting New York City the Sunday before the attacks.  They even "stood at the footprint of the Towers.  And then we went back home.  I went to teach -- I was teaching then -- and then it happened."

Since moving to New Jersey, she has made a point of photographing the Tribute Lights each year.  For her, they are a reminder that "we are still capable of kindness, understanding, unity, compassion and patriotism, as we were in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  One day reminds us of all we've lost...of those who have given their lives trying to save others." Her photo of the Katyn Memorial -- a bronze soldier with his hands bound and a bayoneted rifle in his back -- in Jersey City calls to mind the Expressionistic work of artist and sculptor Kathe Kollwitz (1867 - 1945); and the shot of lights across the Hudson River conveys a sense of both physical and spiritual illumination. "The back-stabbed soldier and the 9/11 lights have something in common, I think," Oswald observes.  "In both cases, the enemy back-stabbed the victims....[They] never saw it coming."

By contrast, the photos in Vampire Fantasies reflect our curious love affair with those beings who have no reflection.  Oswald, who jokes about having " a vampire accent,"  believes that the living dead fascinate us because "they are beautiful.  They live forever.  They have superhuman powers. For some reason, this vampire character keeps re-appearing in some other shape or form.  The vampire from Dracula is not the same as the vampires from Twilight."  And while she thinks we're "pretty much over the peak of the vampire craze," there is, she adds, "a truth  of some sort lurking behind the legends...something that we are subconsciously drawn to and that she herself would like to further explore in a "collection of pictures about the background theory about all these vampire stories."

Photography has become an increasingly important part of Oswald's life. In a sense, her second love grew out of her first: when she was writing for A&U, she quickly learned that “if you didn’t have the pics, it was no deal.” So, in order to keep her stories from being killed, she began shooting her own photos. By 2008, she was taking photography classes at B&H in New York City. “I love it,” Oswald enthuses. “The topics that I photograph are the ones I follow. I have a dark dramatic side of me, and I have a colorful side….With black-and-white photos, it’s painting with light.” Literally – after all, as she points out, “photo” means “light” and “graphy,” “drawing.”

Actually, “light” is a word that comes up frequently in her conversation. She uses it mostly in regard to her photography, of course: and she frequently uses a flashlight to achieve the effects she desires, “the smaller, the better. You can be more precise and paint the details better.” But there’s an interplay of light and darkness in Oswald’s writing, too. In much of it, she is chasing the shadows with a metaphorical flashlight, “cover[ing] the non-mainstream subjects – maybe the forgotten stories or the disregarded ones, but I’m fascinated by them and love what I’m doing with all my heart.”

Self-portrait by Alina Oswald.

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