It’s easy to dislike someone — and maybe even hate someone — you don’t know. That’s the basic principle behind artist, activist, writer, speaker, actor, and social scientist iO Tillett Wright‘s weighty photography project, Self Evident Truths, which aims to take 10,000 portraits over the next five years.
iO, who lives in Los Angeles but spends most of her time on the road with her team, describes the project as “a photographic document of 10,000 people in the USA that identify as ANYTHING OTHER than 100% straight,” and notes that the project’s goal is “to humanize a vast community through the simplicity of their faces, showing that we come in all shapes, sizes, races, and social strata, thus making it harder for people to discriminate against us.”
The portraits will eventually be displayed in an installation on the lawn in front of The Washington Monument, “likely in 2016 before the next presidential election.” Supporters of the project include Kylie Minogue, Penn Bagdley, Sia, and Steve Buscemi.
Struck by both the scope and the emotional impact of the project (really, scroll through this page of faces) I wanted to know more about the artist behind it. I spoke to iO over the phone from Brooklyn to ask about the birth of the project, the process — and why creating monumentally large-scale pieces of art is an important endeavor.
HBO: Where did the idea for this project come from?
It’s kind of a longer story, but basically I was asked to be part of an art show that was around the time of Prop 8. I had never really thought that it was such a big deal; I’m gay, but I mostly think of myself as human. I didn’t really think of it, because I live in this bubble. When Prop 8 happened, I was really stunned, and it got me thinking about how something like that happens. Like, “What does it take for somebody to vote against love? What’s the problem here?” In my opinion, the disconnect is familiarity. It’s this othering thing, and I just wanted to put a face to name.
Are you close to hitting your goal? How many people have you shot so far?
Oh, no. I’ve shot 4,613, I think. And the goal for the project is 10,000. This weekend, I leave for LA, and I’m shooting Long Beach Pride this weekend. Then starting June 1, I’m on tour for 6 weeks, then I take a break, then I’m back on tour until October.
When your goal is so huge, is it easier to shoot at festivals?
Yes. When we first started it, we were putting the word out and letting people come to us. And the most we ever got using that method was about 100 people in a day. Then I went to a Pride and I shot 127 in 24 hours and I was like, “Oh.”
Tell me about the process of photographing strangers. You’re very fast at taking photos, I heard.
You have to be fast when you photograph that many people! The blessing of my project is that it’s about photographing people in their most raw, honest state. I’m not trying to get a glamour shot. You get the most honest photo of people within the first 30-40 seconds. But there are two kinds of people: The ones who are raw before they remember to put on their photo-face, and then the ones who have some crazy face that someone told them was good at some point, and I have to get them to let go of that.
It’s very intimate and very basic. I have a backdrop and natural light. And then it’s me and them. I try to make them feel disarmed. Self-deprecating humor always helps. It’s easy to find the beauty in people, which makes it easy to tell them they’re beautiful. And I have to shoot so fast because I have just about 3-6 frames per person. Because the volume is so high, and the processing is a nightmare.
Yeah, talk to me about processing that many photos.
The funny thing is, I’m a film photographer, so I’m not even really that familiar with a lot of editing. I have to be super-brutal with the selection I make. So I go through, give five stars to the portrait I think is best, then pick out all the five-stars, make TIFFs for [one size for the prints for the Washington Monument and one the online ordering], and then from there, I go through and color-correct and make black-and-white every single one.
I kind of like it that way, though. It gives me more to play with. I try to get them to look as close to film as possible. I like to shoot on film; I wouldn’t be doing this digitially if I could. The first 1,700 are all on film. But the cost is just too much. It’s a populous project, so I had to do it in a populous medium. And I don’t retouch; I refuse to adjust people’s imperfections, because imperfections are beautiful.
I have to say, I was trying to get my mind around this project, and I started just paging through the gallery, and it was just face after face, and it was really emotional. What is it about human faces that are so affecting?
The real answer is that I’m super-fascinated with the brain. I’m reading this book about how the brain functions, and how we formulate empathy and love and connections to others. And I have many books and theories; I basically make my money talking to people around the country. But there’s this process by which the limbic brain scans other peoples’ faces for things it recognizes. We’re reading each other constantly. That’s what being human is. We’re provoked emotionally, unconsciously, when you look in someone else’s eyes.
When the exhibition hits DC, you will not — and I think I can really say this — be able to walk through and not see someone who looks like someone in your family, and that’s the point. It’s bringing it home. So look for that person who looks like someone in your family, and then think about what would happen to that person, and if you’d want to restrict their freedoms.
This seems like a really laborious process; did you ever consider making it smaller?
I think that the blood, sweat, and tears that go into it is what makes it beautiful. My dad always asks why I don’t just have people send me photos. I mean, it’s the internet; sure, I could get 10,000 selfies tomorrow. But that’s not the point. The point is that one person, an artist with an idea, took this thing on and traveled the country for five years and shook hands with and made eye contact with and met every single one of these people in every single state. Everything is so fleeting because of the internet; it takes something that is analog and human and has a heartbeat that makes something worthwhile. And after the 10,000 faces are in DC, we’re going to make it open-source so people will be able to be part of it. And then I don’t know what’s next, hopefully an app. I just tend to dream, and things tend to happen.
Is it OK if I use some of the photos for this story?
Use all of the photos for this story. That’s actually something important about this project. None of the images are copyrighted. I took them, but I want people to take the image and use it and spread it and have the conversation about where it came from. It’s not about me having ownership of the photos, it’s a mission.