Jo Ann Santangelo’s obsession with documenting life began as a young girl growing up in Boston’s North End. After relocating to Austin, TX in 2006, Santangelo hopped on her bike and started photographing. Over 1,500 black and white portraits of the locals became her first photo essay, ‘Austin Seen’. In August 2008, she moved to New York to attend her first formal education program at the International Center of Photography. While at ICP she was awarded The New York Times Foundation Scholarship and interned with Eugene Richards. Her photographs have been featured in publications such as: El País Semanal, The Guardian, Mother’s Jones, New York Magazine, Food & Wine, The Washington Post, Austin Monthly, The Boston Phoenix and the Austin Chronicle.
Can you talk a little about this project, ‘Proud to Serve’, and how it came about?
‘In the summer of 2008, just before leaving Austin to come to New York City to attend The International Center of Photography, I met a soldier who broke down in the back of my pedicab as he was telling me what it was like to be gay in the military. Honestly, before meeting him, I had never really thought about ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. When I went home and looked up gays in the military, I was shocked by the numbers.
‘When I started the full-time photojournalism program at ICP, I was told that I needed a long-term project. I proposed photographing and recording the stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender veterans in their homes. After graduating, I had met and photographed about 10 veterans. I was just starting to really connect with service members across the country and I believed in the project, so I decided to continue. When I started this project I didn’t think I would still being working on it two years later. Now, I can’t imagine not working on this series’.
‘I want to put a human face on the statistics, to remove the ‘gay’ label, or what people typically think a gay person looks like. That is why I decided to photograph the subjects in their homes. To show in the end, we are all just humans. I feel honored and blessed to have had the opportunity to meet everyone featured in this project, show their faces and share their stories’.
You’ve photographed over sixty men and women for this project. How have you gone about finding your subjects?
‘At first I contacted all the various organizations such as: Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), Knights Out, The Palm Center, AVERNY and SWAN, with little success. Then I went to a SLDN rally in Washington, DC and met the first four veterans in the project. Word of mouth also helped a lot. My good friend Justin Elzie, who was the first Marine to come out in 1993, put me in touch with many of his contacts. It’s a really tight community, especially now with social networking. I posted on all the various forum sites, and veterans would respond from across the country. At the time, I had no way to get to them, so I kept everyone’s contact information for the one day I would make it on the road’.
You’ve travelled around the United States photographing gays in the military, some who have been discharged under ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’. Can you talk about the experience of raising the funds for this project through Kickstarter?
‘After unsuccessfully applying for funding several times, I was getting frustrated. I had been working on the project for over a year and a half with an exhibit that was going to open on Veteran’s Day at the LGBT Center in Manhattan- I had access to so many LGBT veterans across the country, yet I was stuck in Brooklyn with no money. I remembered a friend of mine had raised money through Kickstarter, so I decided to try it. I set up the project for thirty days asking for $3,000 to cover my 30 day road trip. The first few days, I sent out emails to colleagues and friends with really no response. Then I started the facebook page for ‘Proud to Serve‘ and set up a twitter account, which really helped get the word out. It felt great when I started getting backers from active duty military serving in Iraq. In the end I hit my goal with 65 backers and hit the road about a week later. Forty-six of the sixty-six portraits featured in Proud to Serve took place on a recent, 28-day, 10,167-mile solo road trip accross the United States.
These portraits are very intimate. How do you get your subjects to relax when discussing such a personal experience?
‘I am very low key and low tech, which I think helps people relax. Almost all the portraits are taken using natural light or with just a flash on my camera. I think it also helped that I was on a 30 day road trip which initially gave us something to talk about. Overall, the subjects were honored that I was doing this project and we talked about how much it meant to them to finally be able to tell their story. Most of these veterans have never told their stories beyond close friends and family, and some haven’t spoken about their experience or discharge in over ten years’.
You recently made the move from New York City to Austin, Texas. How is life as a documentary photographer different in Austin?
‘What’s different is that Austin gives me room to breathe, to relax, to go on daily bike rides. There is less pressure here. The community is so amazingly positive and supportive. In New York, a vast majority of my friends were fellow photographers, perhaps because I met most of my friends while a student at ICP. Whereas, here in Austin, my friends are photographers, metal workers, painters, musicians, bike builders, writers, farmers, and so on. You can meet someone and say you have this crazy idea for a project. Most often they will say ‘let me see how I can help you with that’.