Epitaphs for the Living: Words and Images in the Time of AIDS

Howard, Billy

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Photography

Genre: Photographs with Commentary

Annotated by:
Jones, Therese
  • Date of entry: May-30-2003


As the title denotes, each image of a person with AIDS is captioned with his or her own words and signature. Howard's juxtaposition of both images and words lends a special power and specific meaning to the collection: images are given a distinctive human voice, words a distinctive human face.

Each image tells a story, but the story is that of a singular life facing a singular death. Using a focused lens and realistic frame, Howard presents candid portraits of persons in ordinary surroundings engaged in daily activities. Light creates mood in this pictorial display of the entire range of human emotion.


In his preface, Billy Howard writes that what he learned from the project of Epitaphs for the Living was not the anguish of death but the richness of life. Throughout the experience of photographing people with AIDS (whom he describes as "America's new heroes"), he saw faces which displayed the "strength of the human spirit to suffer not only physical but social tragedy" and heard words which "came from their heart . . . no barriers."

Yet, how to present the vitality and self-determination of individuals in a medium that is not only static and depersonalizing but that also reinforces the distance and separation of the viewer from the viewed? Howard places each image of the person above his or her handwritten and signed message. The settings--home, work, car, backyard--are as various as the captions--aphorisms, poems, prayers, manifestos.

The images give a force to the messages, saving them from the banality that often weakens testimonies on the meaning of living and dying; the words lend a weight to the photographs, saving them from the sentimentality that often overtakes images of suffering. By honoring the living rather than commemorating the dead, Howard creates a photographic alternative to the Names Project Quilt.


10 pp text; includes statement by the artist and introduction by Lonnie D. Klievir.


Southern Methodist Univ. Press

Place Published