Because I have the amazing problem of hardly ever being able to say “no,” I recently booked a trip to see some friends in San Diego over Halloween weekend. And because I also have the amazing problem of always overwhelming myself, I decided to go ahead and book some work with a couple photographers during my visit.
One of the photographers, Drew, may not have gotten the best first impression of me. On Saturday, he wanted to shoot all day and, in order to hit all the great locations, he wanted to pick me up at 6 a.m. I am not a morning person. You'd be more likely to see an image of Jesus miraculously burned into your toast than you would see me up and crushing it at 6 a.m.
Drew is an incredibly talented photographer who runs both “DQ Fotography” and “SKINmages” (DQ’s naughty brother). Drew and I had been talking on Instagram for quite some time - which is how I lure in most photographers. I stalk them, like and comment on their photos, and if they send me a message of interest, I pretend to be totally caught by surprise.
Who? Me? You want to work with ME? But I look nothing like the guys in your photos! I am so flattered! Hold on! Let me book my ticket! I’d say of some sorts.
The truth is that I don’t, nor will I probably ever, consider myself a “model.” Instead, I like to use the term “poser.” I “pose” for photographers. This title also works because I constantly feel like a con-artist when I’ve somehow convinced them to let me get in front of their camera. On any given shoot, I often imagine the “fraud police” will suddenly bust through the door, throw on some handcuffs, and drag me out of there.
Because of this, I always try to show photographers how incredibly committed and professional I am (or pretend to be) with the shoot. And even before meeting Drew, I was already blowing it. I declined his 6 a.m. pick up time and pushed for 7 a.m. But I had a really great excuse: ZOMBIES.
Friday night, before the shoot, I planned to join some friends at a Halloween revamp of an amusement park in Orange County. I couldn’t possibly bail on it. I already bought the ticket (two days before the trip). Plus, Elvira was going to be there! ELVIRA!!! The mother-fuckin’ Mistress of the Dark!!!
Drew patiently agreed and I told my friends that we had to leave the amusement park absolutely no later than 11 p.m. so that I could get at least six hours of sleep. That evening, I delighted in zombies chasing me around, acting as though they were going to eat my brains. We didn’t leave until after midnight, getting me to bed at nearly 2 a.m.
Before crashing, I texted Drew, asking if he could pick me up at 8 a.m., hoping he would get it the next morning. He replied right away, stating he was still up as well and that we could meet at nine. I could already tell I liked him.
Even with the extra sleep time, I was the one who looked like a zombie that morning. It didn’t matter how long I showered or how much lotion I put on my face or how good I blow-dried my hair. Fortunately, Drew still found me suitable for the lens.
On our drive to the first location, we surprisingly found it easy to make conversation with each other. Drew had been reading the blog and so he already knew WAY too much about me. Even though we didn’t have much in common, we enjoyed talking nonetheless.
Our second location would take place in the backyard of a young gay couple I also chatted with on Instagram. One of them had sent me a photo of their outdoor shower which they built from an old clawfoot tub. It made for an incredibly unique setting that neither of us could resist. However, we didn’t expect that we’d stumble upon a goldmine of other amazing backdrops to shoot with too.
Their backyard connected with the next-door neighbors, another gay couple, who were strong into the fetish scene. They had dungeons, locker rooms and army barracks. We had slotted ourselves for two hours at this location. We ended up staying there for five. Needless to say, we didn’t get all of the shooting done we had hoped to for the day.
“Sooooo, would you want to shoot tomorrow too?” Drew asked like a teenage boy asking a girl out to prom.
“Absolutely! Let’s do it!” I said like the teenage girl desperately waiting to get asked to prom.
But the next day would take an unexpected turn. In order to catch up on our zzzz’s, we purposefully got a late start. While we had the main goals of shooting at the beach, and then later his studio, we decided to get some more intimate style shots in the lovely bedroom that I occupied during my stay (as if stripping down naked in front of the camera wasn’t intimate enough already).
And no, the bedroom was not where the unexpected turn took place - in case you were wondering if said turn involved something more naughty (it’s not that kind of story). Rather, the turn took place in the car as we sat in all that charming SoCal traffic I’m super jealous of not having (actually, Denver’s traffic has gotten pretty bad too).
Drew went back to discussing my work on the blog. He wanted to know more about my HIV status. How did I find out? Did I know when it happened? Did I have any idea who gave it to me? Was I angry at them?
Normally this is how I discuss my HIV story with the curious. They ask whatever and I answer whatever. But with all the traffic time on our hands, I decided to bypass the questions and just to tell the entire story from start to finish. It’s quite a complicated one actually - a story of friendship, broken condoms, rattled lives, and human connection.
When I got to the part when I went in for the confirmatory results, something strange started to happen. My throat got all hurty and my eyeballs felt especially moist. Hurty-throats and extra-moist-eyeballs are the worst! They can mean only one thing: you’re about to cry when you really, REALLY don’t want to.
I tried taking a couple deep breaths to keep it all at bay - hoping Drew wouldn’t notice. As I talked about going home with my new diagnosis, my voice quivered and a tear rolled down my cheek. I tried to stealthily wipe it away.
“It’s okay,” Drew said kindly. “You can cry.”
Fuck. He noticed.
“I don’t know why this is happening,” I told him - trying to excuse myself. “I have told this story hundreds of times.”
This was true too. Not long after this diagnosis, I decided to be completely open about it - which, due to the stigma, was completely unheard of at the time. I went on to become a local public figure who did interviews for print and radio. I became a mentor to other newly diagnosed guys in my community. I did numerous public speaking gigs in front of thousands of people. And I wrote my own, local column about it for four years.
It had been ten years since my diagnosis (in case you were wondering why I said “radio” instead of “podcast”). It was the root of my belief in transparency. Why in the hell was this hitting me so hard now?
I couldn’t cry in front of the photographer. Sure, I am all about transparency, but THIS WAS EMBARRASSING!!! I needed to convince him I was a sexy grown man - not a sniveling little wuss. My second attempt at poser professionalism with Drew was quickly going down the drain.
Perhaps the tears came because I had just spent two and a half days in front of the camera (including the other photographer on Friday). Getting photographed like this feels incredibly vulnerable. Or maybe it was because Drew and I had already shared somewhat vulnerable stories with each other and thus telling him my most vulnerable one put a bigger heart on my sleeve. Who knows? Did it even matter?
I guess in some way, as I sat there sobbing into the passenger side window, it felt nice to feel so affected by it after all these years. Somehow, I found relief in the idea that the thing that changed the trajectory of my life still had an impact. If it didn’t, I could have very likely returned to behaving like the unappreciative douche bag I was before.
We stopped for some food and while waiting for our orders, I rushed to the bathroom to splash some cold water on my face in hopes of it looking less puffy. Although it would have made for honest photos, it wasn’t quite the look either of us wanted when it came to the beach.
During the rest of our drive, Drew suddenly felt a freedom to open-up about his own sad story. Both his parents died right as he was finishing up with high school - first his mother (who he was very close to) and then his father. He had nowhere to go. A loving family had taken him in, but his path continued to remain confusing and uncertain. Somehow, he didn’t cry at all while telling me about it.
Fortunately, some other friends met up with us at the beach so we could multitask in some leisure time with the shoot. They pulled us out of our black hole and into some more upbeat conversations. Before we knew it, the sun started going down and we hadn't shot a thing. We scrambled to get some while we still had some daylight left. The same thing happened when one of these friends joined us for dinner. By the time we left the restaurant, it was well after 9 p.m. I began to sense a pattern here.
Our final location would take place at Drew’s studio. On our way there, we got immersed in heavy conversations yet again - this time talking about things we rarely tell anyone. Never have I had a photoshoot turn into a mutual kind of therapy. Being vulnerable with each other gave us the kind of unprofessional decency to deeply confide in one another.
Times like this are the reason I choose to be open about my HIV status, and live a transparent life. Sure, I may have just accidentally cried in front of someone I was trying to impress, but it reminded me of how much my diagnosis still meant to me, and it gave someone else the opportunity to share a profound part of their life as well. Because transparency isn’t just about telling our own stories, it’s also about the way we listen to others.
We didn’t start the studio work until almost midnight. Drew became a different man in this environment - more serious, focused, and demanding of my posing. He challenged me on my camera skills in a way that made me simultaneously uncertain and determined. We finally wrapped up around 3:30 a.m. and I found myself exhausted and fully back in zombie mode. Drew still had to drive me home.
“Sooo, I still have a few more ideas. Would you want to shoot tomorrow too?” He asked like a new friend, eager to hang out again.
“Absolutely! Let’s do it!” I said like a friend who was just as eager.
I had wanted so badly to be an image of professionalism and physical perfection. However, since grief never really goes away, it snuck up on me when I least expected it. And I happened to be with someone who let me let it out. Though instead of letting it out, I ended up letting go…I let go of being perfect for the photographer, and it got me something far better than just some incredible photos.
Happy World AIDS Day.
Copyright © 2017 The Bare InkSlinger, All rights reserved.
All photos courtesy of SKINmages and DQ Fotography.
Photo Copyright © 2017 SKINmages and DQ Fotography, All rights reserved.