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Wolfgang Tillmans
via SHOWstudio

Wolfgang Tillmans speaks candidly about life with HIV

In a SHOWstudio conversation with Lou Stoppard the legendary photographer – whose boyfriend died of the disease – discusses the impact on his life and work

In a frank new interview, artist, activist and musician Wolfgang Tillmans has discussed the impact having HIV has had on his life, and how it has affected his work.

The SHOWstudio’s ‘In Camera’ series saw the artist interviewed by Lou Stoppard, taking questions from the likes of Kate Moss, Hari Nef, Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant and the secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs Boris Johnson.

“I found out I myself am HIV positive but I have never made that active subject in my work,” Tillmans said, responding to a question posed by the CEO of the Terrence Higgins Trust, Ian Green. “People are so scared of Aids that everything in the work foreshadows this.”

Tillmans also referred to the tragic death of his boyfriend, German painter Jochen Klein, who passed away of Aids-related complications back in 1997. “HIV impacted my life from the first day of experiencing having sex. Of course, it affected me when my boyfriend, my love of my life suddenly died of it. At the time therapy was possible, but he found out too late.” 

“Aids has always been in my life and now it has featured in my work. I’m aware of the fragility of life,” he added, in what may be his most open conversation about the disease.

“I found out I myself am HIV positive but I have never made that an active subject in my work. People are so scared of Aids that everything in the world foreshadows this”

The photographer’s work has been steeped in political and social causes: his creative call to arms before the EU referendum, “17 Years Supply” depicted a pile of pill packages in a cardboard box, and “Black Lives Matter protest, Union Square”, which captures important activism of our time.

“In the Aids issue of i-D in 1991 with the campaign that Simon Foxton did, it said, ‘We haven't stopped dancing yet’. It's like we haven't died yet,” Tillmans continued. “I'm more than grateful that science and chemistry have allowed medication to exist.”

In the interview, Tillmans also explored the framework of his art, thoughtfully discussing fragility, vulnerability and radical movement in creativity.

“I have seen the world with a different eye. I have always been aware of other people's struggles, and that not everything looks the same from different angles,” he said.

Taking a question from Kate Moss about freedom, he also said: “The fact I can live in freedom is the result of other people putting their arses on the line doing embarrassing and challenging things.”

“Not every photograph is a comfortable one and I find photography embarrassing because you're revealing your interests. To overcome that embarrassment you have to feel a certain sense of urgency, like you need this picture, and you want to talk about it and that is important.”

Watch the full SHOWstudio interview below, and read the Dazed investigation into whether the stigma surrounding HIV is finally shifting.