When acclaimed photographer Duane Cramer’s father died in 1986, the stigma of AIDS in the Black community was so great that his family told people the prominent Howard University educator died of something else.
“My sister and I were really scared, really nervous, so we told people he died of cancer,” Cramer said.
After he later became a board member for the NAMES Project Foundation – AIDS Memorial Quilt, Cramer and his sister made a panel commemorating Joe J. Cramer Jr., a former associate dean of the Business School, and decided to tell the truth.
“We realized the only way to make progress was to be open and honest about how he died,” Cramer said. “Not many Black people talked about AIDS. He was an educator, a PhD in theoretical accounting. So we said, ‘What would Daddy do?’” and decided to come forward.
“Ten years later, I was HIV,” Cramer said. “I was supposed to have known better, but in the heat of the moment, I made a decision that I regret, but I realized that I needed to do what I needed to do” to get and stay healthy and to help others do the same.
Now, 17 years later, Cramer is healthy – the level of the HIV in his system is virtually undetectable – and he has become a noted activist who encourages others, particularly African Americans, to know their HIV status and how to get help if they contract the virus.
Cramer, a noted celebrity photographer who is often mentioned in the same breath with Gordon Parks and Herb Ritts, is well known for his HIV awareness images and has been involved with the development and creation of several HIV initiatives, including: “Testing Makes Us Stronger” with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Greater Than AIDS and “Love Your Life – Keep it 100 NYC.”
This year, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of World AIDS Day, Cramer and TV’s “Project Runway All-Stars” winner Mondo Guerra have come together to launch a new awareness initiative on Monday.
People will be directed to log onto ProjectIDesign and make a pledge to learn more about HIV, educate someone else about the condition, or help themselves or a loved one manage their HIV care.
Each pledge will virtually reveal, in real-time, a portion of a specially-designed fashion item created by Guerra specifically for the HIV community using fabric that was hand-painted by the HIV community in attendance at this year’s United States Conference on AIDS, one of the largest annual HIV-related gatherings nationwide.
Guerra and Cramer are working with pharmaceutical firm Merck, which makes HIV/AIDS drugs, on the campaign, which aims to empower people living with HIV/AIDS to “tailor” their treatment plans “through their own lens” and the help of their health care providers.
“We are all unique and different and one treatment plan doesn’t work for everyone,” Cramer said.
“I’ve had issues with my doctors and I wasn’t getting the best results. After I started [speaking up] I started getting better attention…When you are an active participant in the development of your plan, you have a vested interest in taking medications and keeping up with your health.”
More information is available at ProjectIDesign.
Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”