Amber, 26, Actor/Model, Los Angeles, 2011, and Eric, 24, Retail Manager, San Francisco, 2011. Photos: iO Tillett Wright
Photographer iO Tillett Wright has shot everyone from Olivia Thirlby to Iggy Pop, but since 2010 she has focused her lens on average Americans, taking simple portraits of anyone who identifies as somewhere along the LGBTQ spectrum. Dubbed the Self Evident Truths project, it has taken the Brooklyn-based Tillett Wright across the country and back again, picking up famous fans (think The Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler) and thankful subjects along the way. “The really important thing to understand is that it’s not a gay project—it’s a humanist project,” she explains. “I want to photograph everyone in this country who is anything less than 100-percent straight, because discrimination laws don’t just apply to people in committed, gay relationships; if you’re one-percent not straight, you qualify for [legal] discrimination—and for me to take your photo.” The result—at least, as it stands right now—are 1,675 portraits, all of which will be displayed for one night only at New York gallery The Hole. In advance of tonight’s celebration, which is co-hosted by Terence Koh and features $10 portraits and performances by Bianca Casady of CocoRosie, Tillett Wright spoke with ELLE.com about her road trip across the country and the state of politics in art today.
ELLE: Was Self Evident Truths the product of a light-bulb moment, or had you been thinking about it for a while?
iO Tillett Wright: I was part of a show called Manifest Equality in Los Angeles in 2010, and I realized there was a disconnect between people who are gay or have gay friends and are gay-friendly, and people who think they don’t know any gay people. It was kind of a light bulb moment, but I think it went on when I was sleeping, because I woke up and was like, “Let me photograph everyone I know, and they can see what I see!” This woman from the [Human Rights Campaign] was [at the first exhibition] and said, “This was great, what do you want to do next?” I said, “Now that I’ve got all the cute lesbians [in Brooklyn], I want to go national so I can show people.”
Chelsy and Melissa, 21, Film Maker and Environmental educator, New York, 2011. Photo: iO Tillett Wright
ELLE: How has it been taking the project on the road?
iTW: In November 2010 I went to North Carolina on a road trip with a couple of friends of mine, and I had never been to a Walmart in my life! I was born and raised in Manhattan; I didn’t realize that I, in all my androgyny, was a freak to the rest of this country. I hadn’t experienced any kind of discrimination or hate, and then I did, and I was like, “This is what people’s daily realities are!” For me, shooting in San Francisco is fun, shooting in New York is fun, but being in Little Rock, Arkansas… we met so many people who deal with so much atrocious bullshit. It’s illegal to be gay in Little Rock—this is such a reality for so many people, but once people get to these bubbles of New York or LA or Boulder, Colorado, they forget. It was a really incredible experience and eye-opening and humbling to hear about people whose churches cast them out, people who have quite literally lost everything—families, husbands divorcing them, losing custody of their family—because they need to be true to themselves.
ELLE: Any big surprises?
iTW: I’m learning so much about human resilience and love and the heart’s resilience and what people will go through to be honest and true to themselves. All I’m ever looking for in my work in general is honesty and truth and people being real to themselves. Through this project, I found that whenever you come in contact with discrimination and people who have been attacked physically, verbally, cast out by their own parents, they’re still trucking and being who they are. It’s so incredible. It has completely changed my perspective of struggle.
Olivia, 25, Actor, New York. Photo: iO Tillett Wright
ELLE: Is it the responsibility of artists to be politically active with their work?
iTW: I think that people have to do what’s right for them—they have to stay true to themselves. I’m not a hugely political person in my daily life, and I think as artists the point of making art is to make the thing that’s true to you. Is it really important to be politically aware at this point of time? Yes. And people need to recheck their ability to contribute to the world outside of themselves; we aren’t really doing that as much as we used to because there’s a lot more navel-gazing in younger generations—they don’t realize their power. For me personally I never set out to be an activist, I certainly never set out to use my art for political means, but I saw something that seemed wildly unjust and saw a way to contribute to that with my art.
ELLE: Self Evident Truths is just one of your many projects, but does it ever feel like its overshadowed your other work? Like, you’re now known as the “gay photographer” or something?
iTW: Uh-huh, it’s a problem. A lot of people only call me for work when they want me to shoot gay stuff. I’m like, “Dude, come on!” And the world is now saturated with portraits I’ve done in one very specific style. In my normal work, [subjects] don’t know I’m taking their photos, it’s in a bar, it’s very candid. And [for Self Evident Truths I’ve] obviously shed all of my normal style for that. It’s nice when people understand that it’s a specific thing. Even being labeled “the gay photographer” is degrading, but you have to keep making shit—or date a guy and start painting!