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I met Vern Hester while waiting in line to enter the photo pit at this year's Riot Fest. This was shortly after intergalactic scum-dogs Gwar painted the audience in fake blood and dismembered a series of monsters and celebrity effigies, a performance that Hester literally couldn't shake; his shirt, jeans, and shoes all were speckled with crimson when we first bumped into each other.
Hester spoke about Gwar's set with a mix of shock and amusement, and he described his experience with more enthusiasm than one might expect from a person who entered the gauntlet known as the festival photo pit unprepared to get splattered with fake blood. I quickly discovered that Hester is no stranger to enthusiasm, and even when I felt tired towards the end of the festival, he continued to be as energetic as he was when we first crossed paths at the beginning of the weekend.
I admire Hester's passion, which appears to be as much of a positive life force for him as rock, photography, and Nichiren Buddhism. Like outgoing Reader managing editor Jerome Ludwig, he's a regular at the South Loop center of the Soka Gakkai International, which is where we met for our People Issue interview—we spoke for about an hour, though I easily could have sat and listened to him discuss his life for that entire afternoon. Most of our previous conversations revolved around photography and music, so I didn't know about all the hardships Hester has faced over the years—including his HIV-positive diagnosis in 1991—I had only seen some of what helped him get through it all.
At Riot Fest I noticed plenty of other photographers approach Hester to admire his camera and talk shop. He still shoots in black-and-white film, but he's in the process of changing to digital, which isn't an easy transition. After landing in the hospital back in 2003, Hester struggled to get back on his feet, financially and physically, and one of the hardest things he dealt with was not having access to all of his photo equipment.
"Being that I'm a photographer who shoots film, I have a physical problem being far away from my negatives and my darkroom," he told me. "That was all packed up, and that's just like a part of you." Eventually Hester did return to normalcy, shooting intimate rock shows as well as big blowouts like Riot Fest.
Every time we speak it seems like that punk festival—and, specifically, Gwar's bloody presence—pops into the conversation. When Hester called me Wednesday night after tracking down physical copies of the People Issue he mentioned that he finally managed to remove the fake-blood stains from his shirt collar. Though Hester finally managed to wash away that pesky physical evidence of Gwar's goofy Riot Fest appearance, I imagine the memory is one of many that has fulfilled his prayers to live a long and fun life.