Chris Panagakis Photography

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AIDS/LifeCycle organizers are meticulous with details provided to riders in preparation for each year’s event. Seemingly every step leading up to and then all aspects of the week-long bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles are covered in such repeated and careful fashion that one cannot help but feel coddled. The dedicated staff at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and Los Angeles LGBT Center, in their twentieth year hosting the annual charity ride that raises millions for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention in California, run a tight ship. But there’s one thing they don’t tell riders. You are alone in your head for hours.

For legitimate safety reasons, cyclists are cut off from all devices of mass distraction while on their bikes. Only a Zen monk could prepare for the uninterrupted road of self you face every morning. Observing my husband and many friends as veteran participants, I know this is the real test of the ride. I’ve also gleaned that at the heart of the test is the question: why am I riding? A limited kind of existential question, contained and contextualized enough as to be manageable, I set out to photograph its answer.

Rest stops immediately after the most strenuous legs of each day’s ride seemed my best bets. The exertion would help peel back some of the layers for me, which was important as I knew I’d only have a minute with each rider. There were a lot of forced smiles in the first few frames. Clearly I needed to give folks permission to relax, so I said this: “As I take these pictures, think about why you’re riding. It might not be your happiest thought, so don’t feel like you have to smile for me, but do try to look into my lens.” A precious, blessed few smiled because it was joy driving them down the road. Some more could still only find comfort in a party-perfect smile. The rest were sufficiently startled by the question to reply with visceral clarity.

Not literally, it should be noted. I know the specifics of no one’s story. I could hardly pose a more loaded or intimate question to this group. It felt unfair, even unreasonable, to expect articulated, verbal answers. So all I expected in return were the moments of recollection playing across a subject’s face. I’d never have gotten anything done for all of the crying upon hearing the words to go with those expressions anyhow.

Tibetan Buddhists practice a technique known as tonglen meditation wherein one focuses on drawing in the suffering of others in order to ease it by proxy. Because the energy of that pain is thought literally to pass through the practitioner, this technique is reserved for the most advanced. An unskilled meditator would be injured. Similarly, had I not my camera as an immediate repository, I am certain I’d have been quite bruised in the repeated asking riders to recollect these memories. Even in my role as conduit, replies like I got with “June 1, 2014 #217,” “June 2, 2014 #200,” and “June 4, 2014 #78” were like round kicks to the gut.

It would be easy to call the ride a rolling memorial to a community’s pain dressed up in charity fundraising. And frankly until this portrait project, that’s essentially how I viewed it. In the moment, though, I kept thinking of the Tibetan Buddhists and their tonglen meditation. Rather than a rolling memorial to pain, AIDS/LifeCycle is catharsis in the truest sense. Given the requirement to do nothing but focus on the questions that matter and move forward, we were all transforming the pain by allowing it to be felt.

To recall them is an act of reformation when it comes to the traumas of life. These cyclists weren’t riding because they were deeply, maybe even unconsciously, motivated by pain brought to them by AIDS. They were riding because they recognized an opportunity to do something with and about that pain. To give it form and motion and purpose and let it become something new entirely. 

My subjects, it soon became clear, were not the only ones moving through emotional traumas that week. The AIDS epidemic added a terrible new dimension to the age-old antagonism between small towns and big cities. Regardless, AIDS takes members of small towns just as happily as urban dwellers. Add to the confluence of these facts thousands of pedaling reminders and the stewpot comes to a boil. 

There is a luxury afforded to approachable strangers holding professional cameras that permits us to hear the extraordinary. Avowedly conservative locals want advice on how to approach gay neighbors to let them know they’re wanted. Moms confess to wishing they could take back terrible words said to dying sons. Crusty old dudes remark that in the end, all that matters is that we treat each other like humans. Even if that’s not how they behaved back when they could’ve salvaged a relationship with an estranged sibling.

Regret is just pain wearing a different hat. And with catharsis loving company, all of the folks from the small towns through which AIDS/LifeCycle wends joined in the business of transformation. And it is at this point where I get properly caught up in things. It is impossible not to feel properly hopeful when witnessing both sides of this transformation. Who we lost and how we behaved when the AIDS crisis descended cannot be changed. How we deal with it in this moment and who we choose to be going forward remain very much in our control, though. From all angles, I see healing. And that’s the real answer.