A Shot in The Dark With Sam Stoich
In honor of National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day, we sat down with photographer Sam Stoich, a Bay Area-born artist who has been creating since the early age of 10. Diagnosed HIV-positive when he was just 19, Stoich’s work has been defined by visual timepieces throughout his journey. He now lives in New York City and continues to influence, educate, and inspire his audience, encouraging each onlooker to find their own voice and strength, and dismantling the stigma traditionally associated with HIV. Milk sat down with Stoich to talk the NYC art scene, his “Blood Brothers” project, and how his diagnosis informs his work; read the full interview below.
Let’s start off by giving us a brief background about yourself.
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and was lucky to come from a family of artists and creative people. Due to some very traumatic circumstances, like being born with a facial birth defect called a cleft lip and palate, I was drawn to art as a way to express the very complicated emotions that brought up. I ended up going to a public art high school in San Francisco called SOTA (School of the Arts) where I really flourished. I feel like that gave me a four year head start in developing my voice as an artist which I’m forever grateful. After high school I took two years off because I had another major surgery planned for my cleft… and then was diagnosed HIV positive at 19. That totally shook my world. I was told it can take almost 3 years to come to terms with an HIV diagnosis. Looking back now, almost 3 years later, I believe that to be true… I tried many times during that period to make art about this experience, but always failed. Now that I have fully accepted this affliction in my life I have finally come to a place where I can express what it feels like artistically.
How has the transition from San Francisco to NYC influenced your work?
Well I am lucky enough to be going to school here (School of Visual Arts). It has given me the time and resources to really focus on my work. Outside of school though, it has been the people of New York that I have learned the most from. I have met so many unique and beautiful souls here that have sparked so much inspiration for my photos. Many individuals I’ve met have also helped me come to terms with my own identity too. Being surrounded by that kind of energy keeps me endlessly inspired.
What’s it like having your work featured online?
The best part about the exposure I get when being featured anywhere is when other people my age or older who are also HIV positive reach out to me. To know that my work is resonating with others who are in my shoes is the only validation I need. Not only is it other HIV afflicted people who have reached out to me, but also people with a cleft and people who have been marginalized for whatever reason. My work is so much about finding power in vulnerability and It’s great to know that is inspiring others in difficult situations.
An example about how different art forms have affected my work is this film from the 1920s called Greed by Erich Von Stroheim and its about this man in a black and white silent film that succumbs to greed and ruins his life. The director represents that by hand painting the filmstock a yellow-gold color in certain parts, like a gold coin or a person’s gold suit. As the movie went on, more and more parts of the frame were painted yellow and by the end he totally succumbs to greed. When its really ruined him, the whole film is yellow. So that is what I am sort of doing with the color red. Instead of representing greed I’m representing HIV. Using the color to represent a circumstance in my life is something that I’ve turned from a film and its proven very effective. Color is powerful and has a lot of connotation like I have mentioned
Do you have any dream collaborations?
You know I used to dream about working with the biggest names, famous artists and celebrities, but as I’m getting older I am realizing that I am already working with my dream collaborators. It’s the people who have been pushed to the margins of society and still manage to thrive and lead the most beautiful lives. They are heroes and celebrities in my eyes and my goal is to capture them as such.
You root for the underdogs?
Tell me more about your piece, “Blood Brothers.”
This piece is about confronting fear. When so many sexually active people out there today live with such a strong fear of contracting HIV, they forget to do the research. What people don’t often realize is that being HIV positive/Undetectable (meaning you are on medication to suppress the viral load) means that you are untransmittable and even if you have sex without a condom you cannot pass the virus to anyone. The studies on this are thorough and extensive, all it takes is a simple internet search. Many people however don’t know this or refuse to believe it when they are told and instead put themselves at risk when having sex with individuals who may think they are HIV negative, but haven’t gotten checked in months and could potentially be carrying the virus. The Blood Brothers polyptych I did with someone I was seeing who was also HIV positive. We felt like cutting each other open and embracing could confront all of these frustrations that many poz/undetectable people feel…. all while making a statement of solidarity. I believe that fear will not protect you from HIV. It’s getting tested regularly, being honest with yourself and others and getting as much information as you can.
I think that a lot of people are afraid of HIV+ people and contracting it, which is really missed informed. Especially on Grindr or other dating apps there’s a lot of misconceptions on how you get HIV. A lot of people don’t realize that undetectable means untransmittable. Meaning that if you go to a doctor regularly and take medication, you cannot give HIV to someone else.
With all of that being said, what’s next?
I’m just going to keep creating. I want to meet more people who are living with HIV, but I also love making work with all kinds of people in the LGBT community or even people who aren’t. Everyone is dealing with some kind of shame or complicated circumstance… so my goal is to one-by-one make images that allow people to live in their truths, eliminating the fear that holds us all back. I am also talking with a prominent HIV positive artist about a future collaboration, I am very excited so keep on the lookout.
Images courtesy of Sam Stoich
Stay tuned to Milk for more artistic offerings.