This June the US Supreme Court ruled that federal anti-bias law covers LGBTQ workers — an historic decision protecting the right to employment for more than 7 million Americans identifying as LGBTQ. Although the nation was founded upon the belief that all people are created equal, those not born white cisheterosexual men have been fighting for their Constitutional rights over the past 250 years.
With the understanding there can not be queer liberation without Black liberation, American photographer iO Tillett Wright embarked on a 10-year journey across the United States to photograph 10,000 people from every walk of life for the groundbreaking new book, Self Evident Truths: 10,000 Portraits of Queer America, (Prestel), which features a foreword by Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors.
Black queer and trans people have always been at the forefront of liberation movements, though their contributions have gone largely unheralded by the mainstream. With an estimated 10 percent of American adults (25 million people) participating in the Black Lives Matter movement, which has become the largest Civil Rights movement in world history, “All Black Lives Matter” has become the call of our day, acknowledges the importance of protecting femme, queer, and trans communities, which are among the most vulnerable.
“These photographs reflect back intimate renderings of love,” Cullors writes. “Black and Brown faces fill up the space with possibilities. iO was clear about who it was that he wanted to capture; he was clear that all of us needed to be seen. And these everyday images of the queer community are the representations we seldom see as part of the cultural conversation in the United States…. As I see it, we have been left with a new charge: to amplify, complicate, and enumerate the stories about who we are.”
Self Evident Truths is a profound document of the resilience, power, strength, and dignity of the individual and the collective. Recognizing the power of visibility and representation to transform the lives of people who have been ignored, erased, or marginalized, Tillett Wright has created a kaleidoscopic portrait of America to showcase the full spectrum of sexuality and gender across race, ethnicity, age, profession, and class.
Embracing the “Fifty Shades of Gay” philosophy first discussed in his 2012 TEDxWomen talk, which has been viewed nearly three million times, Self Evident Truths features portraits of nurses, truckers, doctors, lawyers, au pairs, chefs, cab drivers, and professors. In the mix are actors Zoe Kravitz, Kiersey Clemons; models Adwoa Aboah, Yves Mathieu, Matisse Andrews; musicians Azealia Banks, Naeem Juwan (aka Spank Rock); screenwriter Lena Waithe; activist Janaya Future Khan; and fashion designers Prabel Gurung, Becca McCharen-Tran, US Senator Tammy Baldwin; athlete Megan Rapinoe; and drag queen Pearl Bizarre — most represented by their first name so that all portraits co-exist on a level playing field.
That sense of equality infuses every element of the work. Conceived as a radical act of inclusivity, Self Evident Truths is designed to overwhelm the viewer to illustrate the vast scope of LGBTQ people in America. Adopting an include no-barrier-to-entry approach, Tillett Wright visited 90 cities, set up a black backdrop and created a series of portraits inspired by the work of Irving Penn’s Small Trades, Richard Avedon’s In the American West, and Nhem En, a teenager forced to photograph 14,000 people awaiting execution at S-21, the Khmer Rouge killing center used during the Cambodian genocide of 1975–79.
Inspired by the work of Caravaggio and Nan Goldin, Tillett Wright employed a black backdrop to make his subjects’ eyes the visual focal point. The book was designed with the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher in mind, embracing the equalizing impact of the grid format. The simple, straightforward images reveal humanity at its most diverse and elemental.
Each portrait included was sequenced chronologically in a design that visually represents the idea of equality — that no one photograph stands out. As the first book to include 10,000 images included in a single volume, the viewing experience is akin to the never-ending streaming experience of digital media rather than the linear experience of the traditional book format. Readers could spend years perusing its pages to take in the full humanity of each subject.
“As I read more about social psychology, researched successful civil rights movements, and had discussions with the subjects, my unconscious instinct became a clearly voiced perspective drawing from the age-old truth that you can hate something only until it springs up in your own family: ‘Familiarity breeds empathy,’” Tillett Wright writes in the book’s introduction.
“’Familiarity’ springs literally from the idea of family. It refers to those we know. This is the family of humankind. The more you see of your family, the more you want to love and protect it. It’s easy to denigrate people you’ve never met, but it’s hard to hate them when they’re standing in front of you. We hate what we fear, and we fear what we don’t know. So to dismantle hate, we have to create familiarity. Visibility is everything.”
All images: © iO Tillett Wright, from Self Evident Truths: 10,000 Portraits of Queer America by iO Tillett Wright (Prestel Verlag, Munich ·London ·New York, 2020).