A powerful story of love, friendship and the circle of care. Retrace the Native American ancestral roots of the hidden figure in the most famous photo of AIDS, on a virtual reality road trip, and discover the unique friendship formed through a clash of cultures in the centre of a human crisis.
Project Short Synopsis
The most famous photo of AIDS, seen by a billion people, hides a powerful story of love, friendship and the circle of care. Jump on our virtual motorbike and retrace the Native American ancestral roots of the hidden figure in the photo, on a road trip of a lifetime, and discover the unique friendship formed through a clash of cultures in the centre of a human crisis. For Peta and Therese it would be an adventure that would change their lives as they meet and at last find someone who accepts them for who they really are.
Project Long Synopsis
In 1992 the clothing brand Benetton used a photo of a man dying from AIDS in a billboard marketing campaign to highlight the AIDS crisis that was happening and to give a human face to AIDS. The photo featured David Kirby on his death bed surrounded by his family and this colourised photo, that was previously published by Life magazine in black and white and taken by photographer Therese Frare, is the most famous image of AIDS, having been seen by a billion people worldwide.
Beside the bed in the photograph only visible by their hands is Peta, David’s caregiver who worked at the hospice and who was bi-racial and transgender. We propose for this project a virtual reality experience about Peta, forgotten by history and not included in the original image.
He is Native American and was two-spirit being gender fluid between male and female who struck up an intense friendship with Therese, who featured Peta as the subject of her Masters photography project. Numerous images taken by her, that have never seen by the public, include their visit back to Pine Ridge the reservation, on a motorbike, where Peta grew up, a road trip where Therese met his uncle, Alex Lunderman, who was the tribe’s medicine man.
They went shopping together, bought wigs and pink fluffy slippers, went clubbing, rode on his motorbike in the Mid-West, did the Native American pow wows and sweat lodge ceremony all moments together that defined their lives.
Therese met Peta when she was pursuing her work on AIDS. Through many subsequent meetings, Therese befriended Peta, who was then an active AIDS caregiver. He was also what is known in the Native American culture as a berdache – half man/half woman who they regard with much reverence. Peta was born to a white father and a Sioux mother, and is a direct descendent of Red Cloud, who was an Oglala Sioux Chief, and the most photographed Native American of the 19th Century.
His full name is Petaigig Ichiwaiwanka, given to him during a ceremony in his native South Dakota, meaning keeper of fire, and his story is one of conflicted genders living with two-spirits. One that drove him from the reservation where he grew up and into the “white man’s society”. Living in San Francisco and attempting to “find” serenity, peace and a loving relationship. Over the years, he became HIV positive and cared with great empathy for those stricken and soon to die recognising in them his own mortality.
This is a story about adventure, friendship and roots as we follow Therese and Peta back to his tribe, giving new life to photographs taken a quarter of a century ago of their epic road trip home to Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations, South Dakota, USA. It is a heartfelt immersive story about identity and those left out of history. Inspired by Carol Morley’s film Dreams of a Life, the VR stories Easter Rising by the BBC and Dear Angelica by Oculus Rift.
How do you envisage the work to be presented and describe the user experience?
Our story will be a location based theatrical VR experience that would start with the participant having a Native American necklace like Peta made, and wore, placed round their neck.
They would then be invited to put on a Oculus Rift headset by the attendant. They would then be led into a secret room hidden from general view where they would be asked to sit down. As the experience starts the story would begin with the participant seeing the original photographs in the hospital and hear the voices of people who are connected to that image. They would hear Kay Kirby’s voice talking about why she asked Therese to take the photos of her son, then it cuts to the wider framed shot that includes Peta.
Next scene leaves the hospital as the participant feels a “motor” rev up from beneath them as they see in VR a set of motorbike handlebars appear in front as we utilise the growing trend for haptics in VR, to create a virtual motorbike. They are then cued by the headset to reach out and grasp a real set of motorbike handlebars fitted with sensors. They are now playing the part of Peta on his motorbike, travelling the long flat road on his trip back to his reservation, using photogrammetry to join up Therese’s original pictures to create a VR backdrop. Either side of the road there are the images that Therese took, like billboards, such as the shot of the Rosebud service station. On the handlebars in the VR experience the user will see two mirrors that are calibrated to the movement of their head. Volumetric capture and motion capture would be used to create a moving 3D version of Peta’s face that would be the participant’s reflection in the motorbike mirrors.
The next scene is a sense of wide open space, freedom and liberation inspired by the images of Peta swimming and of his long hair flowing in the breeze. We see images connecting him to his ancestors like Red Cloud, whose grave features in one picture. They hear the words of Uncle Alex as noted down by Therese, spoken by an actor, who describes the cultural tradition of two-spirits. The participants see big open fields and hears an actor playing the part of Peta, use his words to describe the conflict of his intersectionality.
The participants get to see images of Peta exploring his gender, wearing feminine cloths in contrast to the masculine motorbike scene. The participant hears narrative from Therese about them going clubbing and shopping for wigs.
Finally, the last scene is a photo of Peta in hospital being cared for by Bill and Kay Kirby, David’s parents. Peta has found his own family and the circle of care is complete and the story ends with the voice of Kay Kirby talking about the love of the family that you choose.
What are your aims/objectives in making this work?
The aim is to be the first team to bring a historical two-spirit transgender person of colour into public conversation using VR to show that people from that community have been around for a long time and should be accepted.
To illustrate a personal story of friendship that is still very political today as it is a timely account of gender identity and race.
To utilise virtual reality to create a high-spec premiere visceral innovative immersive queer story that will showcase the technology and highlight how to tell a diverse LGBTQ story through it.
To connect with the Native American community in terms of research, design, art and staging of the VR story.
To premiere this story at Tribeca Film Festival in New York in 2020 in a location based experience when it will be 30 years since Therese took the famous photograph, and also the thirtieth anniversary of Senator John McCain’s bill, the Native American Languages Act of 1990, which repudiating past policies of eradicating Native American languages by declaring as policy that indigenous people were entitled to use their own languages.
In an age of visual communication where our Instagram images can be seen by millions I was drawn to Peta’s story initially through the iconic image that defined the AIDS epidemic. The image that Benneton used in an advertising campaign 1992, that has since been seen by a billion people. I am inspired by stories about family and friendships and especially forgotten histories of those relationships. My journalistic intrigue was peaked when I learned that the hands featured in the advert are Peta’s, the caregiver whose intersectionality is powerful and timely, who has a mesmerising life story and an untold friendship without which this photo would never have happened. This piece is in VR as Peta finally gets to be the star of his own story mixing the original images of him by photographer Therese Frare, with an immersive look as we journey through his duality and his search for his roots, identity and acceptance.
Please explain why you believe your chosen format is the most appropriate for presenting your idea?
The reason I have gone for VR to tell our story is because the project revolves around Therese Frare’s photographs of Peta which have never been seen by the public before. She has a huge collection of images relating to Peta as he was the subject of her Masters degree in photo journalism. With VR being such a powerful visual storytelling tool, it felt natural to allow them to tell the story using those original images. It would allow Peta to be the star of his own story which connects with his love of showing off and being a voyeur! We were inspired by the BBC’s Easter Rising VR experience which uses a lost historical testimony and includes black and white photographs within a creative immersive environment. All three of our team took part in an Artist Residency at the Immersive Storytelling Studio at the National Theatre in London in February 2018, where we were tutored by the staff there and Mark Atkins who created Easter Rising, about the various options available in terms of ideas and ways to present our story in VR. It confirmed to us even more that VR is the most suitable platform for Peta’s story to be told to illustrate the drama, adventure and excitement of a road trip journey from a first person perspective, offering a unique alternative reality that is grounded in facts.
Who is the intended audience for this work?
Life magazine who originally published the black and white version of the photo prior to Benetton, has a VR app so as they published the original photograph they may be interested in partnering and distributing the story on their platform. An extension of the iconic LIFE brand, LIFE VR is a virtual reality platform offering immersive experiences from some of today’s most beloved Time Inc. brands, including TIME, People, Sports Illustrated, Real Simple, Essence, Southern Living, and InStyle. We have reached out to Mia Tramz, Managing Editor of LIFE VR about being involved. We intend this experience to be firstly toured round festivals to showcase the technology and innovative way of telling a unique and diverse story.
This would be, Jamie’s first virtual reality experience and follows a successful Artist Residency at the Immersive Storytelling Studio at the National Theatre, London in February 2018 which focused on developing the story.
We are currently creating a prototype of the story to use to generate more funding interest and test audience engagement to take the project forwards ready for premiering in 2020.
Peta’s Picture: A Tale of Two-Spirits – The team
Role in project: Director
Jamie Starboisky founded the Queer Media Festival in Manchester, England in 2014 as a celebration of LGBTQ storytelling in every form of media. Jamie is currently exploring the use and impact of mobile filmmaking, interactive transmedia and virtual reality in bringing the international LGBTQ community together through digital storytelling. Jamie’s projects explore the use of digital media to tell history and discuss the notion of who is missed out of history and who is included. His work often has themes and notions of identity, race, family, gender identity, sexuality, friendship, marginalised communities, queerness and forgotten history.
Jamie took part in Manchester International Festival’s Creative50 in 2017, a three-month training and development programme supporting aspiring and emerging creatives from Greater Manchester to experiment with new digital tools, technologies and platforms, with an emphasis on doing something new within their artistic practices. The piece Jamie created was an artist film about Mary Burns, partner of Frederich Engels, who was a Manchester born working class women, who has been forgotten by history as the person who navigated him through the slums of the city to research his study of the working class that would then inspire the Communist Manifesto.
Role in project: Writer/Producer
Shannon Yee is an award-winning playwright and producer, based in Northern Ireland. Shannon’s perspectives as an immigrant, ethnic minority, queer artist with a disability living in NI are deeply embedded in her work. Her most recent work, Reassembled, Slightly Askew to immerse audiences in her first-hand experience of nearly dying and her subsequent acquired brain injury. Reassembled… received a 5-star review in The Stage (UK), and earned Shannon a Hospital Club h100 Theatre & Performance Award and Belfast Telegraph’s 2016 Woman of the Year Award in Arts. Reassembled… was part of Battersea Arts Centre’s ‘A Nation’s Theatre Festival’ (2016).
Previous works (film and/or digital multimedia)
2017: So I Can Breathe This Air; an immersive, verbatim walking tour collected from interviews with ethnic minority LGBT individuals living in NI (produced by The Rainbow Project & TheatreofplucK)
2016/15: Reassembled, Slightly Askew; an immersive interdisciplinary artwork experienced via headphones on a hospital bed about my acquired brain injury, (self-produced), ‘A Nation’s Theatre Festival’ (Battersea Arts Centre), The MAC (Belfast, Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival), Down Arts Centre, Burnavon Arts Centre, Flowerfield Arts Centre, Island Arts Centre, Derry Playhouse, Lyric Theatre (Belfast), BAC’s UK-wide Collaborative Touring Network (8 festivals), SummerWorks Performance Festival (Toronto), Mt. Sinai Rehab Hospital (NYC).
Role in project: Photographer/Advisor
Therese has been a visual communicator for over 25 years. At her core is a background as a newspaper photojournalist, which has imprinted on her a belief in the power of communications to educate, to enlighten, to tell the truth, and to be an agent for change. She is best known for her image “Final Moments,” which has become to be known as “the photo which changed the face of AIDS.” Therese currently works for Microsoft, as a project manager for Windows.com global website. Her team is involved with innovations, such as virtual reality, mixed reality and 3D imagery.
Previous work (film and/or digital multimedia)
Therese’s image was also recently included in Time magazine’s prestigious project “The Most Influential Images of All Time.” While Therese was pursuing her social documentary project on AIDS, she also was photographing a portrait documentary project on Peta Church. The project is called “Two Spirits,” and the images tell the very personal story of one person’s experience with gender fluidity, mixed raced ancestry, and the duality of being a caregiver and a client. These images are honest and emotional and are still relevant today. They have provided the inspiration for this project.