This wasn’t how Daniel J. Downer expected to celebrate his birthday

Flying from his home in Orlando, the HIV activist and founder of The Bros in Convo Initiative had planned to treat himself to a birthday weekend in San Diego. Having interviewed Downer for this issue’s cover story, photojournalist Sean Black asked Downer if he’d agree to do a cover shoot. Downer graciously said yes.

“It was an intense day flying across the country and then, boom, going right into a photo shoot, but I really appreciate Sean’s thoughtfulness and talent as a photographer,” Downer said. “It was totes cool doing the photo shoot on my birthday. While I am always intentional about not doing any work on my birthday, I think doing the shoot was very much on brand with who I am, stepping outside of myself to do the work wherever and whenever I am called.”

Stepping off a cross-country flight and into a cover photo shoot, he was self-conscious at first. “I was in my head initially.  I guess I was so concerned about if I would look dehydrated and tired from a full day of traveling,” he says. “But I got out of my head and told myself to celebrate this special moment in my life. After that, Sean and I just kind of went with the flow and I think he captured the true essence of who I am in the photos—the friendly Southerner, the guy next door. I always tell people that my smile is my power and my signature pose because it takes strength to find joy living in this world as a Black Muslim queer man living with HIV.”

After the shoot, both cover model and photographer grabbed dinner at a nearby Mediterranean restaurant. Even as they finished eating, Black grabbed his camera and snapped more photos, providing the picture for this story and one of the images that appears with the interview in this issue.

“Daniel flew in from Orlando and I drove down from Los Angeles in heavy traffic,” Black says. “Exhausted, we had a late meal. I think we were both feeling relieved, and it shows in the last set of pics.”

“It was a great bonding experience,” Black adds, describing interviewing and photographing Downer. “Daniel offers me hope. His sincerity, willingness and generosity definitely came through in the time he gave me, from beginning to end. It’s important for me how I portray my subjects in words and in pictures. Working in the space of HIV requires us to be vulnerable, which can be uncomfortable.”

Black enjoyed finding common ground with his subject. “It’s personally inspiring for me to be able to share the impressive work that Daniel is doing in our shared hometown in Central Florida,” he says. “Daniel is also 20 years younger, and I think the intergenerational aspect of our advocacy work is important so we can learn from each other.”