Claire Yaffa, Anthony, ca. 1990-1992. Gelatin silver print. New-York Historical Society, Gift of the photographer cc

On June 7, AIDS in New York: The First Five Years opens at the New-York Historical Society. The new exhibit will explore the impact the epidemic had on personal lives, public health, and politics from 1981-1985.

The companion exhibition Children With AIDS: Spirit and Memory. Photographs by Claire Yaffa will feature twenty photographs by the acclaimed photographer, whose work has been exhibited The International Center of Photography, The Neuberger Museum, The Hudson River Museum, The United Nations and Fait et Cause, Paris, France, among others. We sat down with Claire Yaffa to discuss her inspiration, her relationship with her subjects, and why she wants people to remember these children.

What was your initial inspiration for documenting the struggles of children with AIDS?

I contacted the Foundling Hospital and asked how, with my photography, I could help them in their mission. That started in 1979 and I worked with them, documenting the programs at the New York Foundling Hospital, until 2006.

While I was doing that for such a long time, I had done a lot of work with children who were hurt, disadvantaged, homeless, and compromised with illness. I learned about Incarnation Children’s Center, which is how I came to this project, back when Dr. Stephen Nicholas was the medical director. He was very interested in photography, as he was a photographer himself. They accepted me there, and let me photograph the children. And these are only some of the children that I represented there, in this exhibit. I would go once or twice a week for 10 years, so I have many many pictures.

So it seems like you got to know all these kids really well.

Not just getting to know them, it’s to suffer with them and love them. All these children were loved and taken care of.

Did a lot of them have their parents around?

Sometimes there were no parents. Either the children were given up for adoption, or they were in foster care. Many of the children languished in hospitals.  Tracy came to ICC when she was six months old. She had always been hospitalized. She was abandoned at birth. She died at 13 months, and she weighed only about 20 pounds. Dr. Nicholas told me “there is no one here for her.”

What was the initial reaction when people saw these photos, and saw what AIDS was doing to children?

What was interesting to me was that nobody knew at the time about the problem of children with AIDS in the United States, and least of all in the Bronx. When I said I was photographing children with AIDS people would assume it was in Africa, and I’d have to say “No, in New York.” I think that was one of the most prominent disclosures. One of the reasons I persisted with this project is that I wanted people to know. And also, I wanted them to remember these children, even though they were here just a short time, because they were very special.

Do you have any memories of your time there that stand out?

Oh, all of them. I photographed Anthony’s white casket. It was a very disturbing thing to do.

Did it ever get too difficult to keep documenting what was happening? Did you ever want to stop?

No. I had to do it.  I started it and I documented an important time in the history of children with AIDS. As Dr. Nicholas has said, if the mother is HIV positive or has AIDS, but is on retroviral treatment when she is pregnant, the child will not be born with AIDS. Dr. Nicholas, when he was Chief of Medicine at Harlem Hospital, he had very few children being born with AIDS. The young adolescents are also living longer now because of treatment, so it’s very gratifying to see what has happened.

But it’s also gratifying to me to see these children are being remembered. When I was going through my archives, it was very difficult. I relived every time I had been with them. And I’m very grateful to Marilyn Kushner and to Jean Ashton for this opportunity.

The Civil Rights Gallery is also a perfect spot for this exhibit. It’s almost like a place of worship, where you can sit and reflect. They come alive in here.

The years you did this, 1992-2002, were a long range in the history of how the country dealt with AIDS. Did you see any changes throughout the years?

I started in 1990 actually, but I didn’t notice any changes. These children were still dying. When I came back in 1992 there were older kids, which is a whole other documentation that’s in the archives of the New-York Historical Society.

What does it feel like seeing these images up in the gallery?

It makes me feel very sad again. But as I said, very gratified with all the people who helped to make this happen. I think that it’s important. It makes me proud that I was able to do this, because it wasn’t easy. I kind of protected myself. I tried not to get too close to the children, but you couldn’t help it. You couldn’t help it if you saw Anthony trying to hit a baseball thrown by one of the volunteers. All the people were so wonderful. ICC was such a wonderful place of caring and love. I called it “Love At The End of the Rainbow.”