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Wolfgang Tillmans on music, photography (including snapping Lady Gaga) and HIV and AIDS treatment access awareness

One of Time’s most influential people, legendary photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has always championed the LGBTQ+ community through his work

By Jamie Tabberer

Wolfgang Tillmans
Wolfgang Tillmans (Image: Markus Bidaux/Attitude; Design: Richard Burn/Attitude)

Paper overturned like a teardrop. Ink swirling across a purple glow. A fly perched atop cracked-open crustaceans, insides shining like treasure. These are just three unforgettable shots by photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, whose portraits of pop stars, LGBTQ+ club-goers and scantily clad lovers often lead conversations about his work. But more than half of his portfolio explores other subjects. “When you see exhibitions of mine, the variety of what’s there is often not captured by a conversation,” says Tillmans, a 2024 PEUGEOT Attitude Pride ICON Award winner.

Such is the breadth of his oeuvre that the Museum of Modern Art dedicated 11 rooms to its 2022 exhibition, Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear. It was named, Tillmans says, after “an interview where I speak about wanting to encourage the viewer, but also myself, to look at the world without fear”. 

An image can provoke extreme emotions in some people — as proved by the reaction to Tillmans’ 2002 photo The Cock (Kiss). Taken at London gay club night The Cock, it shows two sweaty men kissing. “The immediacy touched people, but also disturbed people,” reflects Tillmans. “In 2007, I had a big exhibition in Washington, D.C. There was a two metre-sized print [of it]. It was attacked; someone slashed it with a key.” Nearly 10 years later, in 2016, the image went viral and became a symbol of solidarity after the massacre at queer nightclub Pulse in Orlando. “A photograph like The Cock (Kiss), even though a private moment, is a highly political photograph, whether it wants to be or not,” notes Tillmans. It later featured on the cover of Douglas Stuart’s Young Mungo, whose foreign editions were “prominently displayed in bookshops” in LGBTQ+-hostile countries like Poland and Italy.  

Tillmans is also dedicated to improving access to treatment for HIV and AIDS. He found out that he was HIV positive in 1997. “[It was] just a year after the triple combination therapy was discovered and made widely available, and AIDS became not the inevitable outcome of an HIV infection, and HIV became a treatable condition. I found out at the same time as my boyfriend [Jochen Klein] died of AIDS. It was too late. He was too long unaware of his HIV status to benefit from the medication. He unnecessarily died after the medication had been already available.” 

“I was always incredibly grateful for HIV activism”

In 2006, Tillmans’ book Why We Must Provide HIV Treatment and Information captured an HIV treatment access and advocacy meeting in Cape Town that year. It was attended by activists from 40 different countries and organised by South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign, as well as i-Base, from England.  

“It was an incredibly inspiring meeting, seeing people from Ukraine, Zambia, the US, Argentina coming together. … Of course, almost 20 years down the line, HIV treatment access has been so much improved,” says Tillmans. 

Wolfgang Tillmans was born in Germany, has lived full-time in the UK, and now splits life between the two (Image: Markus Bidaux)

“I didn’t want my work to be seen under the light of somebody that has death sitting on his shoulder. Because since I’ve been a teenager, AIDS had been in my life. Every club night, every moment until 1996, when HIV became treatable, AIDS, and the possibility of death, had been in my life and in my work all along. So, I didn’t want to be seen as an artist working with HIV. But I was always incredibly grateful for HIV activism.” 

Tillmans is also part of Attitude history, having photographed then-Prime Minister Tony Blair for our 2005 cover — despite misgivings. “He did the unforgivable act of joining George W. Bush in starting the Iraq War. And that war is, ultimately, in my eyes, responsible for Brexit — literally. If that war hadn’t happened, the Syrian War wouldn’t have happened, the Syrian refugee crisis, and [Nigel] Farage would not have been able to make the poster of a million people streaming into the UK, which was probably what pushed [17.4 million] people to vote Brexit. I see that as one chain of causality. But I’ve always been a pragmatist politically, and thought this was also a significant moment for a British prime minister to grant an interview to an outright gay publication — something that hadn’t happened in the 100 years before. It was happening now. OK, this man has made, in my eyes, a grave mistake, but on the other hand, he’s done a lot of good for the UK. 

“I recently released my second full album, Build from Here

“He didn’t know who I was,” Tillmans remembers. “But I was thoroughly impressed by his ability to speak, his conviction. He is admirably talented; that, one could totally feel.” 

Tillmans further indulges us with anecdotes about capturing The Fame Monster-era Lady Gaga. “She was interested in art, knew who I was, so that was great. I met her before a concert in Duisburg, a relatively small town between two gigs in Paris and Berlin. There was no press arrangement. We had a whole afternoon for each other.” 

Aside from photography, Tillmans is a musician specialising in emotive, trancey techno, and returned to music in 2016 after a 30-year hiatus. “Little did I know, half a year in, a song of mine landed on Frank [Ocean]’s visual album, Endless, on the song ‘Device Control’,” he remembers. “I’ve haven’t stopped. I recently released my second full album, Build from Here.”  

It seems there’s little Tillmans can’t master, making him a worthy PEUGEOT Attitude Pride Icon Award recipient. Speaking of his work, he says, “It is very fascinating and slightly exhilarating to be in the presence of such extremely talented people.” We know the feeling.  

Build from Here is out now 

This feature appears in Issue 359 of Attitude magazine, which is available to order online here and alongside 15 years of back issues on the free Attitude app.

Joel Kim Booster on the cover of Attitude Issue 359
Joel Kim Booster on the cover of Attitude Issue 359 (Image: Attitude)