Zenith of AIDS epidemic in Atlanta recorded in photo collection now open at Emory

By David Pendered

“Mother, don’t worry. It’s just a virus. I’ll be OK. I always have and I always will be.” So wrote AIDS patient Ricardo M. Llera on a print taken by Atlanta photographer Billy Howard during the height of the AIDS epidemic. A collection from the series Howard created is now open at Emory University.

Llera and his mother

One of the images from Atlanta photographer Billy Howard’s series on AIDS in Atlanta included the piercing remarks from Ricardo M. Llera. Credit: emory.edu

Howard began a photography project of AIDS in 1987, as the epidemic was reaching its zenith. Howard created a series, Epitaphs for the Living: Words and Images in the Time of AIDS. Southern Methodist University Press published a book in 1989 based on the photographs.

“Billy started working on this project in 1987, and by the time the book was published in 1989, 18 of the people he photographed had died,” Randy Gue, curator of the Rose Library’s modern political and historical collections, said in a statement. ”The photographs and notes provide a valuable perspective on the history and evolution of an epidemic that is still with us today.”

The collection is open at Emory’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. The library is a closed stack, meaning that appointments must be made to view materials in a secured area.

Next summer, an exhibit of the photographs is planned for Emory’s Robert W. Woodruff Library. Details are still being finalized. The Epitaphs collection includes photographs with the handwritten notes; letters; printed materials; and a collection of audiovisual files, according to Emory.


A collection of images about the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s by Atlanta photographer Billy Howard has opened at Emory University. Credit: emory.edu

Howard’s series is to become part of the Rose Library’s significant collection of documents related to the HIV/AIDS crisis in metro Atlanta and the South.

The collection includes records provided by AIDS Atlanta, The Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus, Positive Impact, and the Southeastern Arts, Media, and Education Project (SAME).

The collection includes personal filings of three members of the LGBTQ movement in metro Atlanta – Jesse R. Peel, David A. Lowe and Rebecca Ranson.

Some of these records are as moving as Howard’s photographs.

Peel, for example, is a retired psychiatrist and longtime AIDS activist whose practice served gay men. His friends and clients began dying in the 1980s of the disease now known as AIDS.

Jesse Peel

Jesse Peel

Peel said in a 2012 report from Emory he that chose to donate his files to Emory because, “I was impressed by [the library’s] dedication to preserving Atlanta’s history and its desire to include gay and lesbian history. I wanted to be a part of it.”

Peel’s donations included appointment books that include the names of clients and friends who died of AIDS, along with funeral programs that had been inserted into the appointment books. Here’s how Gue described Peel’s collection:

  • “They’re a pretty powerful testament when you turn page after page, and you see name after name after name after name. The scope and scale of the crisis hits you in a visual way and a concrete way that’s hard to imagine. Just the sheer weight of the number of names as you go through the pages takes on a mass and makes it real in a way that other things don’t when you’re talking about the AIDS crisis.”

Of Howard’s collection, Gue said:

  • “I was bowled over the first time I saw Billy’s photographs. They were so powerful. The combination of words and images put a face and story to an epidemic that is often described with statistics.”


David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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