WILD HORSE RUNNING
The Courageous Journey of Tom Fox
Friday, October 2, 2020
5–6 p.m. EST (play video)
Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and Untitled Light Gallery present Wild Horse Running: The Courageous Journey of Tom Fox.
This virtual exhibition of 60 photographs documents IU alumnus Tom Fox’s struggle with and death from AIDS in the late 1980s. The online opening, scheduled for Friday, October 2, at 5 p.m., will feature a panel discussion by two journalists who documented Tom’s final months, a gay pastor who lived through the crisis, and a doctor who gained national recognition for his response to the HIV/AIDS crisis in our region.
Playback of panel discussion is now available.
WILD HORSE RUNNING
The Courageous Journey of Tom Fox
The opening panel on October 2 will focus on Tom Fox’s courageous decision to share his struggle with a country that was terrified of this strange disease and prejudiced toward gay men. It will also explore what AIDS was like in the 1980s before there was medical hope, and the current state of HIV/AIDS.
Panelists will include Steve Sternberg and Michael A. Schwarz, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution medical writer and photojournalist who documented Fox’s illness and death. Schwarz is now a freelance photographer and videographer in Atlanta. Sternberg is an independent journalist who has covered public health and clinical medicine for more than three decades at U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Miami Herald.
Discussing the current state of HIV/AIDS will be Dr. William E. Cooke, who was named 2019 Family Physician of the Year by the American Academy of Family Physicians for his work in Austin, Indiana. He was the sole doctor treating patients who contracted HIV by sharing dirty needles used for injecting opioids.
Doug Bauder, an ordained minister who recently retired after 25 years as director of IU’s LGBTQ+ Culture Center, will relate what it was like as a gay man, living through the crisis and seeing friends die without hope.
The exhibition is dedicated to Tom Fox’s parents, Doris, who died in August, and Bob Sr., who died in September. Long-time Bloomington residents, the Foxes set this exhibition in motion when they donated to the Kinsey Institute memorabilia of their son and a complete set of more than 230 photographs that Schwarz had given them.
October 2 marks the 33rd anniversary of Tom Fox’s AIDS diagnosis. He died less than two years later on July 11, 1989. The week he died the number of documented AIDS cases in the United States passed 100,000.
Tom grew up in Bloomington and graduated from Bloomington High School South and Indiana University. A photograph of him on his death bed, surrounded by his grief-stricken parents and brothers, became the iconic image of the AIDS epidemic. It happened because Fox, who was an advertising account executive at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, invited an AJC medical writer and a photojournalist to document his life as “a person living with AIDS.” Fox wanted to turn his personal struggle into a positive experience that would educate readers about the devastating disease.
The exhibition tells the story of how Fox faced his illness and death with humor, courage, and a love for life—an inspiring instance of the human condition. Notwithstanding the impact of the death-bed scene, the more interesting photographs show Fox interacting with family and friends, clowning for laughs, bonding with his dogs—typical human behaviors in which everybody engages.
Schwarz’s photographs also document the harsh side of Fox’s experience, taking the viewer into intimate moments rarely encountered outside one’s immediate family. We see him wincing as a nurse draws blood, shopping for a casket with a friend, worrying over how to pay a stack of mounting medical bills, and struggling to suck oxygen through an inhaler. We see his skin covered with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions and eavesdrop on moments when he is lost in introspection. As his physical presence diminishes and his psychological state clouds, we continue to get glimpses of Fox’s positive outlook on life.
Exhibition organizers Liana Zhou, Kinsey’s director of Library and Special Collections, and Cindy Stone, senior lecturer emeritus of IU’s Kelley School of Business, say the exhibition also aims to refocus attention on HIV/AIDS. Although no longer part of the national conversation, the illness has not gone away. “This exhibition will help restore needed awareness,” Stone said.
Despite some progress in gay rights and although HIV/AIDS is not a “gay disease,” prejudice against LGBTQ members still runs strong in segments of our society, Zhou and Stone continued. Fox’s identity as a “gay” man was secondary to his life as a warm, lovable human being. Schwartz and Sternberg portray him as a son, brother, and friend with whom everybody can empathize.
Schwarz’s images are excellent examples of documentary and narrative photography. They are both nouns and verbs. They characterize Fox, his family and friends; place them in concrete settings; show them acting and interacting; define them with significant objects and clothes that three decades later have begun to take on the patina of an historical past.
In his first note to Sternberg, Tom Fox explained why he was inviting him and Schwarz into his life:
“I am a PWA [Person With AIDS], diagnosed on Oct. 2, 1987. I am certainly no activist, only a person living with a serious illness, trying to make the most of life. I represent a growing number of people who unfortunately are not able to share their thoughts and experiences, but if I could help one person open his mind to this problem, I would feel like I made a difference.”
“Minds still need to be opened,” Zhou said. “Through this exhibition, Tom’s experience can still make a difference.”
Read the complete text for Steve Sternberg's ”When AIDs Comes Home,” as originally published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It’s available on the AJC website in three parts:
Also read Sternberg’s reflections on his role as a journalist who became his subject’s friend:
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