BRIAN WEIL (1954-1996)
Essay by Stephen Frailey
“For you that shall keep watch upon this bitter rock”
Like many photographers in the 20th century, Brian Weil was motivated by the humanist premise of photography as a powerful instrument for social change. A 1992 exhibition of the work at the International Center for Photography, and a book of photographs published by Aperture, emphasized Weil’s activism: work documenting the global aids crisis in Thailand, South Africa, Haiti and the Bronx, often with the support of the World Health Organization. It is work that is both fearless and deeply involved, and that undermines the documentary conventions of objectivity with emotional and moral urgency.
In this magazine we introduce a sampling of earlier images culled from different bodies of work: of bestial tableaus, of forensic crime pictures from Miami and of the Hasidic in Brooklyn.
Although of different motivations, together the work forms a portfolio that flickers and scratches like a secretive and silent film, from an obscure place and past. Some reference theological and mythological ritual and suggest a liturgy of redemption through suffering, profanity and extremity. Others depict violence so anonymous and convulsive that identity is eviscerated. Some suggest ancient ceremony and a deeply remote mysticism, ageless and immobile.
In its desire to contemplate the most harrowing and private of the human predicament the work forms a poignant acknowledgement of suffering and of shame. Despite the work’s confrontational tone, in its fierce compassion and courage and in its unconditional empathy, it becomes a form of grace.
Towards the end of his life in 1996 he would conclude that the medium no longer could operate as a portal for social progress and justice, and abandoned photography. He founded the needle exchange program in New York City as a method to diminish the spread of HIV, and as a way to directly address a social crisis.