Photograph of street lamps along the Hudson River in New York City during the winter.

Staying Alive Through Photography

Since 1995, Christopher Austopchuk, Sony Music’s longtime creative director, has been giving to GMHC in a fittingly creative way. Every year he sends a holiday card informing recipients he’s made a gift to GMHC in their name, bearing an image created by a GMHC client.

“This has been kind of a mea culpa for me,” Austopchuk said, revealing that he started contributing to GMHC because someone on his staff died of AIDS. “The last time I saw them, I didn’t realize they were dying from AIDS, and we had an unpleasant conversation. About a week later, they were dead.”

Austopchuk sends the GMHC holiday cards to about 50 current and former Sony Music colleagues—his holiday tradition for 27 years now. “I’ve always felt it was a valuable cause,” he said. “Particularly now, as HIV and AIDS have fallen a little bit out of the spotlight—which is a difficult thing to hear if you have HIV or AIDS.”

Peter J. Robinson Jr., who created the image, “Lights on the Hudson,” that GMHC chose for Austopchuk’s most recent card, is himself living with HIV and AIDS.

Peter J. Robinson

Robinson, who describes himself as a “serious amateur photographer,” became a GMHC client in 1995–by coincidence, the same year Austopchuk started sending the cards. He’d been diagnosed with HIV in 1983, but didn’t require any medication until 1995, when his doctors found Kaposi sarcoma lesions in his stomach and changed his diagnosis to AIDS.  

Although he’s recovering from a recent hip replacement, Robinson, 75, reports, “My health now is perfect. I’m taking photographs.”

A photographer since his early teens, Robinson said it became an enjoyable hobby over a busy career in international trade. “I traveled all over the world, so I took photos of all the exotic places I visited.” 

But then Sept. 11 happened. “Most of my clients were in the World Trade Center,” Robinson said. “After the towers fell, I closed my business and retired.” 

He struggled with terrible depression. “My business was my whole life. When the buildings collapsed, I knelt on the ground and prayed,” Robinson remembered. “I was HIV positive, and I thought I was going to die. What did I have to look forward to?” 

That’s when he got busy as a serious amateur photographer, taking photos of cityscapes, landscapes, still lifes, florals, and portraits of friends and family. Robinson lost one eye in a childhood accident, so he sees the world from a fairly flat viewpoint, leading him to call his images via the camera (a Nikon D5000 or D5500) his “fictive eye.”

Robinson initially came to GMHC to learn about resources for people living with AIDS and for help accessing benefits. He often stopped by for a meal in the dining room, and once he got a haircut through the Wellness Program.

It wasn’t until after the Twin Towers fell that he turned to GMHC’s art program for sustenance.

Two community volunteers, David Livingston and Osvaldo Perdomo (a former GMHC board member) taught a drawing class, also through the Wellness Program, but Robinson wasn’t interested. “I’m a photographer,” he said. “I wanted to photograph the drawing class, but they wouldn’t have it.” 

One day though, he ran into Livingston and Perdomo on the street, and they asked him for photographs for a GMHC art show they were organizing. Robinson started contributing his work to GMHC’s popular “Art & AIDS” shows, held at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in Soho. 

“I credit both of them for helping us artists with HIV to keep going,” he said. “It kept me alive–and enhanced my life by keeping me active and creative, looking for images to create for the next show. I survived with purpose.” 

That is the idea behind the Wellness Program, which offers GMHC clients the opportunity to do something creative or physical at no cost to enhance their health and well-being. Led by community volunteers, the classes include yoga, meditation, ballet-inspired movement, art, and creative writing–now via Zoom because of the pandemic.

These days, Robinson is still busy taking photos, but he has adapted with the times. He’s started taking what he calls “dudeoir” portraits for clients, including a few models, to post on their Grindr and Instagram apps. “It became clear with Grindr and other social networking sites that people needed more than selfies,” he explained. “My clients want to have tasteful pictures to share with friends.” 

After the pandemic started, Robinson also began co-teaching a photography class via Zoom to teens nationally in the Unitarian Universalist faith, after serving as a Sunday school teacher in New York. Because Unitarian Universalists follow seven life principles, he said, for photo themes, “I asked the kids to start looking at how the principles play out in their lives, such as in freedom to choose, ability to vote, or anti-racism.”

Robinson takes a picture every day of the view from his apartment, which he said is “down the street” from the Statue of Liberty, in Battery Park City. “It’s one of the greatest views in New York. I’ve taken probably ten thousand images of sunsets and sunrises,” he said. 

Robinson’s work can be viewed at these links: 

instagram.com/peterrobinsonjr
saatchionline.com/Peterrobinsonjr
visualaids.org/artists/peter-robinson-jr

Top Image: “Lights on the Hudson”, Peter J. Robinson

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