Dr. Sirous Partovi’s latest exhibition, “Intimate Landscape,” is a reflection of the triumphs and tragedies that his 29-year relationship with wife and fellow doctor Patti Wetzel has endured. It’s a deeply personal collection of photographs that combine images from his travels abroad with images of his wife’s body.

A devastating diagnosis

In 1991, Partovi and Wetzel were newlyweds, and Wetzel had just finished her family practice residency and taken a job as director of an AIDS clinic in Fort Worth. While caring for one of her HIV-positive patients, she accidentally pricked herself with the needle used to draw the patient’s blood and subsequently contracted the virus.  

“This was during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when there were a lot of people dying every day and hospitals were full of patients in different stages of dying,” Partovi said.

“There were fewer treatments at that time, and the disease was quite different than it is now,” Wetzel added. “At that time, the survival rates were not so great. We were pretty devastated. We really felt that if I lived for five years, I would be fortunate. It had a major impact on our outlook.”

Wetzel decided to go public with her diagnosis. To her surprise, her announcement caught the attention of local and national media.

“It turned out to be quite a whirlwind of publicity and press,” she said. “I felt very strongly that the more people kept their disease a secret, the more it was shrouded in shame and negativity.”

Dispelling stereotypes

In 1993, President-elect Bill Clinton tapped Wetzel to be part of his Faces of Hope luncheon, a national program that included veterans, parents whose children were battling mental illnesses and other people facing adversities.  

Wetzel recalled that even before her own diagnosis, she was frustrated by the notion of an innocent victim – someone who became infected through a blood transfusion, for example – versus a guilty victim, who might have contracted HIV through sex.

“I tried to dispel (that idea) from the minute I became involved with HIV work,” Wetzel said. “People looked at me as an innocent victim and I hated that. Then I realized that I was given an opportunity to educate people who were thinking backwards about all of this. That’s when I became a full-time HIV lecturer and educator.”

Finding new ways to cope

Meanwhile, Partovi said he received support from his colleagues – who understood that the disease isn’t so black and white – while dealing with depression and isolation.

“Nothing readies you for this type of diagnosis,” he said. “I feel like what I did in my work (in the ER) was a daily reminder of the fact that we’re together, we’re alive, we’re healthy. These are ways I would calm myself down and remind myself that I was lucky.”

Partovi said he coped with the situation one day at a time, but still felt plagued with other frustrations, such as expressing intimacy.

About eight years ago, his interest in photography intensified after taking a class in the subject.

“There was a place in Iceland that truly spoke to me like no place on Earth had, in terms of that sense of isolation,” he said. “There were these black and white, snow-covered fields and rocks that really spoke to my core.

“(About a year later), I woke up near my wife, who was sleeping naked next to me, and I saw the same curvatures of landscape that I’d seen in these isolated places. I started taking pictures of her and started putting them together. I’d always been attracted to my wife’s body, but in a different way.”

The result is “Intimate Landscape,” a series of photographs that recently displayed at the Art Avenue Gallery. His work garnered praise from art lovers and fellow artists, but all of that is simply icing on the cake for Partovi.

“This show is about how you go through the hard times and come out of it still intact,” he said. “It was very fulfilling for me. I set out to photographically document my psychological journey. I didn’t have any understanding of what it was I was trying to do.”

Today, Wetzel continues to fight HIV and is fully supportive of her husband’s new passion. She has spent years in the spotlight telling her story, and now it’s his turn.

“I felt it was really freeing for him,” she said. “It’s been 26 years and I am still going strong. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to always have new drugs to turn to when I needed them.”

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