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People Issue 2012: Vern Hester, the photographer

"I wanna be a dirty old man and I wanna shoot rock 'n' roll."

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[The PEOPLE ISSUE]

Vern Hester, 53, is a writer and photographer. His music column in Windy City Times is called Bent Nights. Leor Galil

I'm a Buddhist. I chant. What sets it apart from other faiths is that your prayers are definitely answered. You chant about what you desire or what you want to change in your life and you start to see things move.

I wanted to buy new camera equipment. I was working at the original Potbelly Sandwich Works, on Lincoln and Belden. I was supposed to get a bonus and it didn't happen, and I was very upset. I really wanted this camera. It was like my first new Nikon, and I chanted about it even though I wasn't going to get the money from work, and money came for me in all different kinds of directions.

But there were a lot of other things. I guess the major thing was I found out I was HIV positive. At that point, a lot of people had been dying left and right. There was no cure; there was no hope. I went to one of my Buddhist leaders and he said, "You can beat it." Nobody had ever said such a thing. I mean, even the doctor told me to get over it, that "we all gotta die sometime." He was not the best doctor.

What ended up happening was I chanted a lot about it, I focused my faith there, and I just kept bouncing along and my health did not deteriorate. When I did get ill, which was in 2003, I'd had it for 20 years.

It was a really bad year. I lost my job at Wolf Camera. I had my own business that started failing, then I lost all this weight and I couldn't get another job. I ended up in the hospital. Everything just went completely to shit.

If you decided not to fight 'cause you had a great run for 20 years and you just fade off into the sunset, no one's gonna blame you. I thought about it, and I'm like, "Well, at least die trying." Even though I don't have the most spectacular life—I don't have weekends in Vegas or Morocco or anything like that—I was like, "Fight until the very end." So I started chanting, and strangely enough everything kind of came together. I got out of the hospital. I ended up getting one of the best doctors for HIV in Chicago. He put me on the right cocktails. I've been on it ever since. My health improved dramatically. So after having this for 29 years I was only sick for a year and a half.

My prayer from the beginning was I want to live a normal, fun, engaging, long life. I wanna be a dirty old man and I wanna shoot rock 'n' roll.

When I was a teenager I picked up some flyer of this photographer named Paul Natkin. There were all of these concert pictures and they were like the most stunning things that I'd ever seen. So I started taking my cameras to shows. They would just let you walk in and shoot. I didn't know shit about photography. Eventually I did meet Paul, and he was very much a fixture. He looked at my work. "Well, you got what you need, which is the timing. The technical, you have to work on." He's been a mentor ever since

When I was in college, in 1980, there was this paper called Gay Life, which was a gay newspaper, and I'm just like, "Well, I'm a gay guy, so I'll go over there." And they're just like, "OK, well, you can take pictures at shows or whatever." That went well, and then three or four years after I got there they got this reporter who had just gotten out of college. She had a journalism degree; she was hard-core, gung ho. Tracy Baim. Tracy ended up starting her own paper and now she's a publisher. The relationship I have with her is pretty much one of awe, because she has such a sense of mission. Her focus has always been to serve the gay community.

At one point I wasn't working for the gay press, and we ran into each other and she's like, "Why aren't you shooting for my paper?" So I went to work with her. I wanted to shoot the Pet Shop Boys, and there was no way I was gonna get that without a newspaper, and she's like, "Oh, OK, shoot that." Then I was like, "Patti Smith's playing, I wanna shoot her!" She's like, "Why don't you just write a column, just get away from me?" So she pretty much turned me loose. She knew that I was someone who was not into Madonna. She knew I wasn't going to go to Halsted Street and take pictures of drag queens and go-go boys. That's not my shit. I want punk. I want heavy metal. I want rock 'n' roll. She had the vision to let me do it. We started getting access to David Bowie and the Stones and Tina Turner and Blondie. The other gay papers weren't doing anything like that.

I love taking a good picture. It's funny right now because I'm shifting into digital because you sort of have to do it. But black-and-white film I just love. At Lollapalooza two years ago, it was like 90 photographers—89 of them were like, "You're shooting black-and-white film, oh my God!" They just bowed to me. I'm like, "It's the camera my dad gave me. He bought it when I was born."

Tara D., the gallerist

Index: 2012 People Issue

Jackie Taylor, the dramatist

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