“In the spirit of Richard Avedon, this book contains striking photographic portraits of 10,000 people from across the US, bringing readers face to face with LGBTQ America,” the press release lets me know. Patrisse Cullors, “the cofounder of several organizations including Dignity and
Power Now, The Crenshaw Dairy Mart, and Black Lives Matter” characterises this book as “the
largest collection of photographs of queer, trans and non-binary people – 10,000 beautiful images
that capture us in all our complexity, our honesty, our raw selves.”
Well, I do not think that photographs can do what Patrisse Cullors claims they do. What she sees in them is what she brings to them. As far as I’m concerned photographs are inherently incapable of showing complexity, or honesty, or raw selves.
So what do I see in these photographs? Portraits of different people posing in a variety of ways against a black background. Some smile, some don’t, all try, I assume, to show themselves in what they consider a favourable pose. The vast majority of the pics are very small, some are presented in a larger format. Had I not been told that I’m looking at LGBTQ America I would have neither known nor guessed it; I would have simply seen fellow human beings.
The images come with scarce information. Here are a few randomly selected examples: Niki, 37, fashion co-owner; Blair, 29, graphic-design; Dena, 22, ESOL teacher; Seven, 48, nonprofit practitioner; Yvonne, 53, construction; DW Wiona, 13, brand ambassador; Dawn, 49, paralegal. At times, I’m baffled by labels I have never heard of: What, for instance, is “atmosphere” supposed to tell me? Or “PT”? Or “respite provider”?
The most striking to me is how different and special all look. And, I’m stunned by the variety of individual expressions. At the same time I wonder why they astonish me for aren’t individual expressions typical for human beings? Of course they are. Moreover, what these photographs are essentially showing me are human beings in their various shapes and forms.
How were these shots taken? Were the ones portrayed told how to pose? Was there some sort of communication before the shots? iO Tillett Wright elaborates: “I would not instruct people on what to wear, and there would be no glam or blemish retouching. Just them, as they walked in off the street and wanted to present themselves.”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” states the Declaration of Independence yet this is, as we all know, more idealism than practiced reality. Needless to say, capitalism and globalism have resulted in more inequality than probably thought possible. But that would be another story.
Photographs are invitations to look and see. They also have the potential to trigger our common humanity – if we let them. The fact that millions of people in the US are deprived of basic rights merely because they aren’t heteronormative shouldn’t be tolerated. The belief “that it’s impossible to deny the humanity of anyone once you look into their eyes” gave birth to this book.
The goal of “Self Evident Truths: 10,000 Portraits of Queer America” is to familiarise you with people you know to be queer for “familiarity breeds empathy.” And, while this may not always be the case – just think of the ones who cannot stand being close to others – that empathy is key I do find indeed a self evident truth, a truth that can be experienced and felt.
Self Evident Truths: 10,000 Portraits of Queer America
by iO Tillett Wright
Foreword by Patrisse Cullors
Prestel, Munich-London-New York 2020
Also published on Medium.