“If a picture is worth 1000 words then a picture of a face needs a whole new vocabulary.”
Tillett Wright photographed over 2000 people who see themselves on the LBGTQ spectrum and asked them, ‘How gay or straight are you?” She then sat back and watched as an existentialist crisis unfolded in front of her eyes. It turns out, most people won’t class themselves as 100%; Wright refers to this difference as the ‘grey area.’
Wright herself grew up in this area; she just happened to be unaware of it. As a child in downtown Manhattan, she was surrounded by drag queens, artists and performers. At the age of six, as a protest against being left out of a basketball game, she shaved her head and told her school friends she was a boy. She lived as a boy for eight years; starring in several films as a child actor, turning her shoes the other way so that people would think she was peeing standing up, refusing to kiss girls at parties. Aged 14, she decided to live as a girl again; the following year she met her first love, another girl. Three years later she was in a relationship with a boy. She is eternally grateful to her parents for never questioning her decisions.
Unfortunately not everyone behaves like her parents. People are put into boxes; gay or straight, rich or poor. Wright didn’t aim to become an activist. She had spent a year photographing a new generation of women; those who skateboarded but wore lacy underwear, girls who had a boyish haircut but wore nail varnish. Then she began to notice the debates on gay rights in America; television programs in which panellists likened their love to bestiality. She wondered what would happen if these people could look into the eyes of those they discriminated against. The idea for the Self Evident Project was born.
Once she had the idea, Wright ran out into the cold and photographed everybody she knew in New York who wasn’t 100% straight. Then she went to the Human Rights Commission and got funding for 2 weeks of filming. In Spring 2011 she made the short film, ‘Self-Evident Truths’, shown in this talk. The reponse was huge. 85000 people contacted her and she changed her goal to photographing 10000 faces. At the time of appearing at TED she’d been to twenty cities across the U.S. She learned that self-evident truths didn’t erase the difference between people; it highlighted them. There were complexities in each individual person, not just in groups of people.
Wright made a number of observations on her travels. Because there’s such a grey area, where do employers draw the line if allowed to fire people based on their sexual orientation? Is it at the person who’s had one homosexual experience or two? She also notes that sexuality is a poor binding agent. There’s just as many jerks, democrats, queens, republicans and every other polarisation in the LGBT world as everywhere else.
Wright asks us to look at the faces of her subjects. Do we want to disown them, to reject them as firemen or teachers or nurses, or as our friends? Isn’t it time to realise that life is full of people in this grey area? Don’t greet them as strangers; greet them as human beings.