Photographer iO Tillett Wright looks back to her first image and the varied alphabet of sexual identity she’s captured since.
When sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson traveled to Africa, he found homosexuality in tribes that had been untouched by Western society. The existence of it, he theorized, came from an evolutionary adoption of unattached intermediacy that could bridge the social disparity between the sexes in the simultaneous hunter-nurturer. Like fellow tribesmen or a friendly next-door neighbor, iO’s photographed subjects feel that familiar. Like infrequent cousins, their biological features seem faintly recognizable. With the sheer number so far, Self Evident Truths has documented a diverse presence of LGBTQ across the landscape of America. With its goal of 10,000, it will dare you to shut out the people that surround you. Sharing her name with a fiery Greek goddess and one of the sixty-six moons of Jupiter (that happens also to be the most volcanic), iO seems innately suited to the job of erupting voice and message by pantheon and satellite. With the bang of iTechnology, the world of iO is only getting that much bigger.
Frank Expósito Let’s go back two years. What prompted you to take on this project?
iO Tillett Wright I had gone on a road trip through North Carolina with three of my friends who are All-American girls from Wisconsin. I had never been to Wal-Mart in my life; I was born and raised on Third Street. I got called a dude. For four days straight, I pissed in men’s bathrooms. It was terrifying. That’s what people have to deal with in this country, and that’s what ultimately kick started it.
FE You had been doing other photographic work but not of this subject matter?
iO I hadn’t made any work about being gay before. I didn’t think about being gay really. I didn’t have to come out. I didn’t have a coming out story. In fact, I never came out. I was never like, “I’m a lesbian.” It’s still really not my identity to say that, and I hate the word “queer”.
I sent out an email to everybody I knew that wasn’t straight; if they fell anywhere on the LGBT spectrum (at that point I just knew about LGBT, I didn’t know about the Q, the K, the XYZ), I wanted to take their picture. I shot forty-five people in two weeks. I went to each one of their houses and photographed them on the street. I laid the photos in stacks of 4 × 6 prints in front of the actual photo in the gallery and I gave them away for free. People took it home and put it on their fridge and the photos became talking points. “Who the fuck is that on your fridge? Why is she here, this random chick, in this really intense black and white portrait?”
FE What came out of the first foray?
iO I had successfully captured every cute lesbian in Williamsburg. I knew that for the project to be really powerful it needed to show the very vast spectrum of people it applied to, so we began planning it nationally. While waiting for sponsorship, we decided to do a test run in New York. We went to the Human Rights Campaign and asked them to fund the bare minimum cost of shooting two weeks in NYC, and they did. They were doing an installation at Coachella and needed some artwork for it.
We raised thirteen thousand dollars and we went to California, then shot San Francisco and LA. We made the project video, which 75,000 people eventually saw. After that, everything changed. People started emailing us from all over the country inviting us to come. Kentucky, Wichita, random places. I made people a promise I had to keep. I had to deliver. With the money we had raised, I shot 500 people in four days.
FE And thus far you’ve shot in fourteen cities. What have you discovered are the self-evident truths?
iO That we’re not a marginalized other, that we are everywhere. I’m about to make a video called We Are You, where you’ll see a bunch of people in color, their occupations flashing on their chests, their percentage of gay to straight, the city they live in, age. At its end, you just see “We Are You” across the screen. If you sprinkled salt on a plate of flour, try to pick the salt out. That’s how integrated we are.
This isn’t a gay thing; it’s a human thing. The project is specifically about anyone in the United States who’s not 100% straight. That means if you’re not 1% straight, I want to take your picture. The whole goal is to move away from there being a distinction between gay and straight people. I don’t believe that separation exists. Some people say they’re 100% straight, others 100% gay. But most people fall on the spectrum of one to a hundred on any given day, and it changes all the time. I think that’s a natural human way to exist.
FE It sounds a bit like the Kinsey scale of sexuality.
iO When the message is finally understood that its not about being gay but about being anything other than 100% straight, people will to start to quantify themselves. I want to promote the freedom of being grey.
FE What about those on the opposite ends of the sexual spectrum, the black or white?
iO When you identify as 100%, you automatically put yourself in a community of everyone else. It’s safety—safety in a community—that makes kids in high school dress like a Goth or a hip hopper listen only to hip hop music. It gives a sense of not being alone on the planet, which is ultimately what every human being is looking for. Older people tend to show up and say that they’re 105% gay because they had a lot more to fight against. I get that.
FE How do you quantify?
iO 80-20, gay to straight. I’ve fallen in love with women, but I’m totally attracted to men. With women, I never concentrated on body parts, these byproducts of the person. It’s always been about their energy and connection. That’s why people say they’re pansexual because it’s not about the physicality.
When you don’t have a personal connection with somebody, you can do whatever you want without a conscience about it. I want to address those who don’t think they know any gay people and show them the ones I know.
FE Your previous work similarly exposes the underground but depicted quite differently.
iO Ninety percent of the time I shoot without looking. I’m of the generation of MySpace and Facebook. I hate how self-aware we’ve all become. We all have our “look,” but we’re so much more beautiful than that. Self Evident Truths is the first project I’ve ever done where I look through the lens. My eyes are hurting for it. By 10,000 portraits, I’ll have to lock myself in a dark room and never come out again.
FE What made you start looking into the camera?
iO My dad had a theory when I first started to rip off anyone I thought I liked. He would say, “Try to look like Avedon. Try to look like Irving Penn. You just won’t, but you’ll accidently stumble upon your own style in the process.” He was totally right. The closest I got was Terry Richardson and his candid shots.
I was looking for honesty. My previous work had mostly to do with capturing people in moments when they didn’t know I was there, when they didn’t know they were being photographed. It’s opposite to Self Evident Truths in that way but still pursues honesty.
FE Because you see the subject in a direct stare.
iO For Self Evident Truths, I reeled myself in and pulled my own artistic expression way back. The people I shoot are always on a black backdrop, always in natural daylight. The way the camera interacts with the skin, light, darkness—people just disappear into it. I was done.
I will never do anything besides ask you to take your glasses off because of the reflection. Everyone has the exact same time, space, and opportunity with me to do what ever they want to express themselves. I have no stipulations. I’m not going to light you. You’re going to be as exactly as you are in every day life, except decontextualized.
Penn versus Avedon, I’m on the Avedon spectrum. We aren’t judging people based on what kind of house they live in, what kind of car they drive. All I want for you is to think about the emotion of being human, and that’s it.
FE Is there any conflict in capturing a mass picture of a minority? Do we risk the individual in the wake of a generalized condition?
iO I take individual portraits for that very reason. I document their name, age, occupation, city of origin and city of dwelling. I’m not taking a picture of 300 people standing on the steps together, saying, “Look how many gay people there are in the world.” I’m actually doing the opposite. Look at each individual person, in their two eyeballs. There are twenty million of us. That’s forty million eyeballs you’re going to have to spend a lot of time looking at.
People have asked me when I think I’m going to stop. I tell them maybe when I’m sixty. Once we hit that ten thousand mark, I’m going to open it up for people to take their own photographs. Just get a black backdrop and take a picture.
FE By building this kind of database, you’re like the Ms. Zuckerberg of repressed social identity.
iO Somebody just wrote to me saying that the experience of being photographed was like a family gathering. People don’t expect to see anyone they know, but then they meet others they didn’t think were gay and lots of friendships happen. In Colorado, they hung out all day (well, because we were at a bar). I think thirty new friendships were made in Denver, smashing our national record.
FE How many [portraits did you take]?
FE That last one must have been special.
iO He was amazing. We were already wrapping up and this eighty-one year old man shows up—Paull Kupler.
FE Do you get to hear a lot of their stories?
iO Some are like, “Hi, I’m Claire. Nice to meet you.” Then, Click, click. “Thanks so much. Ok, bye, bye.” Most of the time, though, people will come up to me to tell me why they think the project is important.
FE How will you finally show all of it?
iO In a clear-the-walls campaign.
FE Literally, and also inter-personally?
iO With ten dollar prints, all night long.
To learn more about iO’s project, Self Evident Truths, click here.
Frank Expósito is a writer, editor, and curator based in New York.