A BRONX FAMILY ALBUM: THE IMPACT OF AIDS

A BRONX FAMILY ALBUM documents the lives of a Puerto Rican family living with poverty and despair, with drugs and AIDS, with love and death. My project records the immediate effects of living with HIV/AIDS and the ongoing emotional repercussions of the disease on surviving family members.

In the fall of 1989 a psychiatrist at the Bronx Lebanon Hospital in New York asked me if I would photograph a support group he was offering for people with HIV and AIDS. I agreed, and spent the following year attending weekly sessions and photographing various members of the group. Among them was a married Puerto Rican couple, Ralph and Sensa Cartagena, with whom I developed a special rapport. Ralph, then 32, and Sensa, then 33, both had AIDS from intravenous drug use.

At that time, Ralph and Sensa were living on welfare in the Bronx with four children ranging from age 1 to 13. They had one daughter of their own and three daughters from three of Sensa’s previous relationships. All the children have tested HIV negative.

Over the years a strong relationship has developed between the Cartagena family and me. Throughout this time I have witnessed intense love, tenderness and robust joy. But I also beheld a series of stark turning points involving separation, loss, death, and the disintegration of the family. Ralph and Sensa separated in 1991. Sensa returned to drug use, supporting her habit through prostitution. In 1992, Sensa died of AIDS-related complications, while pregnant by a new boyfriend.

Seven months after Sensa’s death, Ralph’s new girlfriend Lucy and her two children moved in with him. Choosing not to protect herself from Ralph’s infection, Lucy contracted HIV. Ralph and Lucy separated soon afterward. In June 2001, Lucy died of AIDS-related complications.

In the spring of 1998 Ralph’s health took a dramatic turn for the worse. He developed an infection in his brain, lost the sight in his right eye, and became partially paralyzed in his left side. Ralph died of AIDS-related complications in October 1998.

After Ralph's death Rosa lived with and her sister Cristina. Rosa is now 23 years old and lives with her ttwo year old daughter, Shanya.

Since age 14, Cristina has been alone, wondering from one temporary home to another. In 1995, she met a boyfriend, Albert, with whom she had a son. In July 1998 she gave birth to their second child, a baby girl named Emily. Subsequently Cristina broke up with Albert, had a daughter from another man, and now lives with her three children in Allentown Pennsylvania. Cristina is 33 years old.

Jessica and Sensita were placed into separate foster homes after the death of their mother. All told they lived with thirteen different foster families by the time they turned 17.

When Jessica turned 18, she received a full scholarship to university in upstate New York. She is now married with two children and is teaching Special Education at a high school in the Bronx. Additionally, Jessica is finishing her Masters Degree in Education. Jessica is 31 years old.

At age 15 Sensita gave birth to a baby boy. She is now 28 and married, with four children ages 2-12. Sensita works for the MTA.

The photographs in this video were taken between 1990 and 1997. After a fifteen year hiatus I have reconnected with all four daughters. We are now collaborating on a book project documenting their lives with my photographs and their words.

The HIV-AIDS epidemic has dramatically changed the face of inner-city family life. Over 50,000 children and adolescents in New York City alone are now motherless and or fatherless because of this disease. Our hope is to help shed light to the consequences of this terrible epidemic.

j vimeo.com/48158838

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