In January 2019, Logan Bellew enrolled in a monoclonal antibody study to test a new way of treating HIV. Logan asked me to join him for one of these treatment sessions to help document the experience and act as a participant. Seeing the machines and tubes and glove-covered hands treat my friend with such care and study had a profound impact on me. It was a transformative experience to spend the day sitting next to my friend to support him creatively and emotionally while also watching every last bit of blood in his body circulate out into machines and back into him. The cold care of that reality makes me wonder about the work the doctors do and reflect on the grace and care that Logan has towards HIV and understanding it, inside and out. In keeping with his archival motivations, Logan meticulously documented the process with a Polaroid camera while collaborating with friends and researchers.
Efrem Zelony-Mindell: Logan, can you tell me some of the specifics of the HIV study you were a part of?
Logan Bellew: Efrem, thank you for sitting down with me to reflect on this experience. The study involved receiving up to seven infusions of two experimental monoclonal antibodies with the goal of determining the drugs’ safety, efficacy, and commercial viability for both HIV treatment and prevention. In order to assess the drug’s efficacy in keeping the HIV viral load suppressed and undetectable, I had to stop my regular antiretroviral treatment and rely solely on the experimental drugs to keep my viral load undetectable. Every Friday between infusions, I would have my blood drawn, and viral load measured. I asked you to accompany me to one of my infusions, and I want to know this: what went through your head when you walked through the door of the hospital with me?
EZM: That’s a pretty wild question. On the one hand, we have this great rapport. I feel like we’re strangely one person in many ways, especially when we’re doing things. So, it felt like “going to do something that I know is gonna be fun because I’m with my buddy and everything we do together is fun.” I think it was the automatic sliding doors and flooring in the waiting room that suddenly made the reality of the experience different. For some reason, I could be wrong. The lobby of the waiting room is carpeted in a blue pattern with a texture exactly like what you’d expect from a hospital. The color was welcoming, but feeling its texture on the soles of my shoes was not. What was going through my head was, “I sure hope they’re [the staff] as kooky and body-positive as we are, otherwise, it’s gonna be a loooong day.”
I’m curious what you were feeling that day?
LB: I hadn’t thought about it in those terms until you painted that picture for me. I can imagine how the tone of the moment must have changed when you heard the swoosh of the doors, the “now it’s real” moment. I do a lot of things by myself, especially now that COVID-19 has restricted access to so many things, so in my head, I was relieved and excited to have a witness to this process (it usually was just the researchers and me). I was also curious about what your perception of the process would be like. You went with me on the third infusion of the experimental HIV drugs, so I had already been through it a few times, and I was curious to see if what I had described and what I felt in my own mind and body would translate to you as well. There’s always this feeling that I’m making something a bigger deal than it is, that I’m exaggerating, that this is normal and something anyone would do. Was it what you expected?
EZM: What you call normal, I would call humanitarian, my friend. HAHA. I had no expectations. I was honored and humbled to share an intimate experience with you and the staff, to be perfectly honest. What I wasn’t expecting was such warmth and curiosity from everyone involved, that and the pretty sunroom down the hall from your bed, which had a pool table, stacks of VHS tapes and DVDs, and a cheery deck, amongst other homely time passing odds and ends. I didn’t make use of the room beyond sitting in it, nor had anyone in some time by the look of it, but it was so interesting to traverse the space from hospital bed to sun-worn mental recovery space. The whole experience was very human. It’s something that will stay with me as will taking your Polaroids, while we were there.
I kept wondering if you were having fun, [which] isn’t the right word, but I’m still very curious what your relationship to the whole endeavor was? What compelled you to volunteer your time and body? And how do you hold it, and those people, in your memory?
LB: It’s interesting that you remember the rooms. I never got to explore them when I was part of that study. It was only recently that I got to go back and see them. I think this describes my relationship with the experience – while I was doing it, I was so focused that I didn’t even really get a chance to look around myself. That’s one of the reasons why I decided I needed photographs of my experience, so I could pull the photos out one day and remember this thing I once did with some detail. I’m still regularly in touch with the researchers, and I’m even participating in another study with them about COVID-19. Still, I remember being humbled and amazed by their support of my photographic pursuits. I mean, they didn’t have to be supportive. It was extra work for them, but they did support it, and I think the result has helped solidify a relationship based on the 30,000-foot view of why we do medical research and what impact it has on everyone involved.
EZM: It sounds like there’s a good deal of symbiosis happening in this hospital, particularly this unit. I recall experiencing that as well when I accompanied you.
I’m not totally sure this is connected, but I had a conversation with a colleague recently who asked me a question that made me think of you. She inquired if there is a way to make photographs about illness that don’t necessarily have to include tubes and tears and pads of gauze strung to forearms and limbs because sometimes illness isn’t something outwardly visible. I’m curious, given the work you make and your proximity to illness and photography, how this idea/question strikes you?
LB: It’s an interesting question, and I think there are some photographers out there who can grapple with illness in other dimensions than just its materiality. But materiality and tangible records are integral parts of my work. I specifically want to use the materials of medicine with some of these pictures because I don’t want to let the viewer off the hook with this confrontation. It makes you think about mortality in a very real and imminent way. This comes from the lived experience on which all of my work is based on. It’s important viewers see as much of this perspective of illness as I can show them, so they understand the gravity of what’s going on and the labor of everyone involved.
EZM: I love that you brought up that confrontation because as I’m sitting here thinking about where we are headed with this interview, I’m thinking of the history that this work engages with. There are many great examples, but someone like John Hanning comes to mind, especially when thinking about being confrontational. I’m wondering if you can speak to those vernaculars and histories that you are calling upon in making this work, and why it is important to participate in and document this study?
LB: HIV has always been a confrontational virus. It’s always had to be. I am alive because artists like John Hanning shaped the world and its response to HIV through confrontation. But I am also alive because similarly minded people gave the gift of their bodies to develop and test the drugs we have today. They chose to confront the virus on a physical level, and I wish there were more of a record of them and their stories. That’s why it became important for me to keep this record. That’s why my pictures need to show the blood, the needles, and the veins, because that’s how we got PrEP and every other drug that keeps millions of other people and me alive today. This is still a reality of HIV, and I don’t feel obligated to make the subject digestible for a squeamish audience. That blunts its urgency. This is the lesson I call upon from HIV’s historical actors and the vernacular framework I want these pictures to be viewed in.
About the artist
Logan Bellew (b. 1988) is a photographer and installation-focused artist based in Brooklyn, New York and Nicosia, Cyprus. His work takes its root in the archaeological principles of conserving artifacts, stories, and histories as well as public advocacy through the AIDS Solidarity Movement of Cyprus. He earned a BFA in Photography and a BA in Art History from Arizona State University as well as an MFA in Photography from the University of New Mexico. He currently teaches at the State University of New York at New Paltz, Arizona State University, and the International Center for Photography in New York City. His work has been published and exhibited internationally and is included in the artist book collection of The Museum of Modern Art, among others. See https://loganbellew.com/hard-breath-v2 to learn more about Hard Breath V.2.