The battle with HIV and AIDS is often a private one, with few outsiders ever witnessing the real-life triumphs and tragedies it entails. In 1993, less than a year after its launch, NY1 hatched an idea: to document the life of someone living with AIDS by giving them a camera to record their journey. The goal was to put a real face on an epidemic that was often pushed to the margins. That face was Wayne Fischer, someone NY1 viewers got to know every Monday over the next three and a half years in a segment called “AIDS: A Journal of Hope.”
Here are Fischer's words from that series, along with those of his niece, Bari Zahn, with whom NY1 spoke recently.
Fischer: "I have the choice now of either creating more fear around living with AIDS or somehow creating more hope and living life more fully again.”
“There was nothing like it. It was absolutely cutting edge. You know, it was raw," said Zahn, Fischer's niece and the founder of Living Beyond Belief, a charity she created in his honor. “So Wayne was my mother’s brother but he really was like a brother to me. We used to tease each other we were like soul mates, and we just had an incredible relationship and he was an incredible person.”
Fischer: "When I look at those children I say to myself, ‘I hope and pray that they can grow up and have full lives and not have to worry about being infected with HIV.”
“He was proud of who he was and he never apologized for who he was," said Zahn. "There was a light inside of him, a force inside of him that was so powerful and it affected everybody that I think met him. You felt that.”
Fischer: “I am a person living with HIV and AIDS, but that’s not what my life is about."
"He actually said, ‘I didn’t just take this into my body, but I took this virus into my being - into my entire being – to say wake up, look at what life is really all about, including what death is really all about, and live each day as if it was the last,'" said Zahn. "And he said in this way AIDS was my wakeup call, AIDS was my savior.”
"I do remember when the idea of ‘AIDS: A Journal of Hope’ was hatched," she continued. "You know the thought was that at that time there was no face to AIDS, people really didn’t see anybody with the virus, and so given that he was such an out figure and a public figure already and working to create an HIV/AIDS curriculum in the New York City public schools it really was a perfect time.”
Fischer: "I think every job is important in society, and at the same time I think teaching is critical."
“I mean, it was wild," said Zahn. "I remember documenting his life every week running around with a camera. So now – it’s just normal now. You just do that. This was not, like – you did not do that. There was a level of privacy. We just didn’t have social media back then the way that we do now, there were no selfies. It was just a different time. So it was a consideration for everyone, for our whole family.”
Fischer: “I was frustrated, I was angry. I was saying to myself, ‘Look at all I’m doing to be healthy in terms of nutrition, in terms of meditation, in terms of therapy, in terms of support, and then this happens to me?’”
"He loved doing ‘AIDS: A Journal of Hope,"' said his niece. "He was definitely – and he would’ve said it himself – he was narcissistic. You know, he was in a certain way. It’s so funny - he really wasn’t, you know? I mean, he was beautiful. He was a beautiful person inside and out and he loved documenting his life."
"Re-watching some of the segments was really just a gift. First of all it was incredible just to hear his voice again and to see him," Zahn continued. "And also just to think about that we still have the virus. I mean, it’s something that hasn’t gone away.”
"You know, obviously the segment that stands out the most is when he died on screen for all New Yorkers to see. That was his last selfless act,” she added. "In terms of being remembered I think for him he was all about making a difference. And he said if I’ve made a difference in just one person’s life, in just one student’s life, if I’ve prevented one person from contracting the virus then I didn’t die in vain. And so her certainly did that. He lived very courageously and very out and very proud, and we’re very proud of him. ’AIDS: A Journal of Hope” is a gift that needs to be shared with the world even today.”
Fischer: "The only thing that I ever dreamed of was to be able to see my life as making a difference in other people’s lives, and that my life would be a means of change in others. That’s why I went into teaching, and I hope to be an even better teacher and student of life as you see my journal. So that’s my hope.”