The Gay Men Project is an online attempt by photographer Kevin Truong to capture self-identified gay men in their environment to give viewers a sense of who they are and the life they lead. Subtle and unshowy, the photographs provide glimpses into gay men's ordinary and extraordinary lives. Often, the portraits are accompanied by the subject's personal story, which are just as interesting as the photographs. Truong has photographed over 200 men in four countries thus far, with plans for many more.
While initially the Gay Men Project began as a venue for his own photography, the series has since expanded, and Truong is actively seeking photo contributions from anyone interested in being a part of the project, as well as participants for the photographs he himself shoots. Truong recently shared with me his inspiration and goals for the Gay Men Project and his reasons for expanding the project to include contributions from others.
Kergan Edwards-Stout: Kevin, I'm so glad we're able to talk further about your Gay Men Project. A friend shared it with me, and I was really taken with both the photography and the stories. I was also impressed with your goal of capturing the gay community in these slice-of-life moments.
Kevin Truong: Thank you!
Edwards-Stout: Tell me a bit about yourself and how you came to be a photographer.
Truong: My mom is a Vietnamese immigrant, and I was born in a refugee camp in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Later, we moved to Oregon, where I grew up. I got my first degree in economics and worked for nonprofits for a few years, which culminated with me going into the Peace Corps when I was 26. That experience led to my becoming interested in photography and coincided with my coming out.
Edwards-Stout: How so?
Truong: Through the Peace Corps, I was placed in Belize, a country where it is illegal to be gay. When I found that out, I immediately contacted the Peace Corps to ask what I should do. The Peace Corps is the holy grail of nonprofits, and they encouraged me to go ahead and go. I hoped that they would be right and that it would be manageable, but as I had just come out as gay to my mom, going back into a situation where I was told to be "discreet" was easier said than done.
Edwards-Stout: That must have been difficult.
Truong: It was! I loved my host family, but I couldn't be open with them. They kept trying to set me up with their daughter and take me to church. I needed to be who I am.
Edwards-Stout: So you came home?
Truong: Yes, but the hard part was I'd planned to be gone for two years, and here I was, back just two months later. I suddenly found myself with a blank calendar. For the trip, I'd bought a new camera, and I thought, "Well, I can take some classes in photography to learn how to use it," and I discovered I really liked it. I applied to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, moved to New York, and four years later I had another degree!
Edwards-Stout: What shaped your photographic style?
Truong: Having come to photography a bit later in life and having experienced all I did in the world of nonprofit really shaped the kind of photography I'm interested in. So much of art school is about learning to be an artist, and yet integral to who I am is the idea of community. The Gay Men Project perfectly dovetails those two concepts, enabling me to marry my passions.
Edwards-Stout: You mentioned coming out to your mom. What was your coming-out experience like?
Truong: I had known I was gay for a long time, even if I didn't have words to express it. I remember being an 8-year-old kid, taking swimming lessons, and seeing people naked in the locker room. It wasn't a sexual experience but a curiosity. Still, I had the idea in my head that one day I'd get married to a woman, because that was just the way things were done. It wasn't until I was 19 that I had an experience with another man, and even then, I thought marriage to a woman might still be a possibility. It was only after college, when I moved away from home for a job with AmeriCorps in California, that I finally decided to live as an openly gay man. Just before I left Portland, I told all my close friends that I was gay, and over the next few years I told my sisters and my mom. I feel like I've now created the kind of life I'd always wanted.
Edwards-Stout: Where did the inspiration for the Gay Men Project, which you started as a blog, come from?
Truong: I came up with the idea after I came out to my mom. We were sitting there, across the kitchen table from each other, and I said, "Mom, I'm gay," and I still remember the confused look on her face. Later, she told me that the reason she was so confused is that she was wondering if I was going to look different. Being a 57-year-old Vietnamese woman, she had no reference point. I was familiar with Catherine Opie's Domestic project, which looked at lesbians, capturing a cross-section of the community, and I decided I wanted to do the same kind of thing with gay men. I wanted to photograph as many men as I could, with as much diversity as possible, to show people like my mom that there isn't necessarily a "look." My goal is for people to see them simply as individuals. As one of the people I photographed said, "To me, being gay means both nothing and everything at the same time."
Edwards-Stout: How did you first get started?
Truong: I started shooting on film and doing prints as part of my classwork. I'd bring in the photos to show my classmates, and what was interesting was that as much as they liked the photos, they wanted to know the stories behind each. I realized I needed a better platform for people to discover these, which led to the creation of the blog. Before I came out, I remember looking for depictions of gay men on the Internet, and I think it is a great way to expose people to who we are. For example, prior to photographing my first family with gay parents, I had no real concept of what that might be like, but having been to this couple's home and seen them in their environment, I better understood what their lives were like. Hopefully this can help document the varied experiences of these different gay men that I'm meeting.
Edwards-Stout: And while the blog started out utilizing your own photos, you've now opened it up to contributions from others.
Truong: I want this to be a community. While most of the photos are currently mine, I want this to be a reciprocal experience where people feel welcome in sharing their own stories. I'm only able to travel to cities I have access to, and to get the reach and diversity I'm hoping for, I need submissions. Even if people want to remain anonymous, without a photo, but share their story, they can do that as well. The more people who share, the better. People are visiting the blog from all over the world, places like Iraq and Syria. I got a letter recently from a kid in London who said that by reading through the stories of others on the blog, he was able to come out to his parents. Those responses are why I'm doing this.
Edwards-Stout: As a photographer, you have a certain aesthetic. By opening up the blog to contributions by others, have you thought at all about how to balance those with your own sense of style?
Truong: When I first started, photography was the focus. But as I began traveling to photograph these men, the project really became more about them and their stories. The photographs are the hook to get people in, but the stories are what keep people there and what can help people the most. I won't reject a photograph just because it might not be technically perfect.
Edwards-Stout: Do you have a vision for the project in terms of longevity? I would imagine that curating something like this is time-intensive.
Truong: That's a great question. I'm living my dream: I'm traveling the world, meeting interesting people, using my skills, and telling people's stories. Ultimately, I don't know how sustainable that is, as I'm financing it all myself. Any money I make through freelance jobs goes to plane tickets, and I stay with friends to save on hotels. I want to take this as far as I can, around the world, to places where being gay isn't as accepted. I am hoping for more diversity in people, body type, socioeconomic status, and region. Bottom line: I'll keep doing this as long as I can, and as long as I'm enjoying it, and as long as it feels relevant. Who knows where our community will be in 10 years?
Edwards-Stout: For you, it is about the shared experience.
Truong: What I love is meeting these people for the first time who are opening up their lives to me and immediately having a connection of trust. Having that commonality of being gay men really bonds us. For example, even though you and I have never met in person, when I read your essay "How I Survived a Plague," I had a sense of identification with you and your story. We may lead very different lives, but that commonality of being gay men and finding the strength to live our lives out loud, those commonalities keep me doing this project.
To submit your photographs and stories, or to potentially have your photographs taken as part of the series, go to Kevin Truong's Gay Men Project. The Gay Men Project can also be found on Facebook and Twitter. For more information on Kevin Truong, please visit his website. All photography, including the photographer's self-portrait, are by Kevin Truong.
This blog post originally appeared on KerganEdwards-Stout.com.