New York City-based photographer Kevin Truong was 26 years old when he told his mother that he’s gay.
“Sitting across from her at the dining table,” he recalled, “I’ll always remember the look on her face—she looked confused. She later told me she was trying to figure out what I was going to look like, if I was going to physically change.”
Kevin pointed out that his mom, a Vietnamese woman who was then 57, had no reference points. “She was relying on stereotypes to try and visualize what I was going to look like as a gay man.”
That was when he realized he had to do something: “I’m going to photograph as many gay men as I can, to show people like my mom that there is no ‘look’ for gay men. We are who we are.”
That moment gave birth to the photo blog The Gay Men Project.
300 people and counting
Kevin said that the site, thegaymenproject.com, was “very different” when it started three years ago. “I was still a student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and so I was photographing my gay friends in New York City,” he recounted. “I was shooting with film, so I would make prints and hang them up in class. My classmates seemed to be very interested about the stories behind each person.”
Then he began using a digital camera, uploading his photos online along with stories of his subjects.
His photo collection grew as he photographed one friend after another. “Eventually I ran out of people to photograph and had to seek out other participants who would be interested,” he said.
Today, there are over 300 people who have shared their stories on The Gay Men Project. They come from different cities in the world: From London to Rio de Janeiro, from Paris to Ho Chi Minh.
Kevin described his photography style: “I try to create images that are authentic and genuine, and almost always rely on the ambient light.”
What he finds most interesting, he said, is that “the commonalities created by our shared identity as gay men are greater than the differences caused by where we live or where we were raised.”
He explained that, “for example, men in Vietnam and men in Brazil are culturally different. But everyone still goes through a similar experience when it comes to making the decision to live a gay life out in the open.”
Their stories may be similar, though their characters are very different, Kevin pointed out. “There’s always the emotions of feeling different, alone and ashamed. And then there’s that moment we decide to accept our identities to ourselves, and beginning the process of sharing it with other people.”
Kevin believes that The Gay Men Project works because of trust. “When I’m photographing a guy, I’m meeting him for the first time. They need to give me a huge level of trust to make the experience work, and they always do. I think it’s because of that shared understanding of what it means to be gay, no matter where we are from,” Kevin said.
Through his blog, Kevin has realized how connected the world is. “I photographed a guy in Ho Chi Minh City who knew another guy whom I went to high school with in America. There was a guy in Paris who knew a guy I photographed in New York, and a guy in Sao Paulo who knew a guy I photographed in Los Angeles. The world may seem very big, but I think it is very small. I want to see as much of it as I can.”
On March 2, he launched his own Kickstarter to raise $30,000 to “run The Gay Men Project the way I dream of doing it.” He wants to keep traveling, finding more stories, and making more photos for six months to cover 15 countries starting in August.
Kevin, who was born in a refugee camp in Malaysia before he and his family immigrated to the United States, went back to visit Vietnam only in July last year.
“It was a profound experience on many levels,” he said. “But what was most compelling to me was the opportunity to connect with and learn from people I’ve met. Having been raised in America, I often take my heritage for granted, so I was grateful to have been able to immerse myself in the culture while in Vietnam, and really just take it all in.”
In this interview, Kevin talks about his creative process: How his project has evolved; his handy cameras; and his thoughts for those who are still coming to terms with the gay lifestyle.
What things run through your head as you shoot photos?
To be honest, since I’ve done this nearly 350 different times, I’ve become systematic about the process. Photography can be difficult—it’s technical while being creative at the same time, so I’m constantly forced to used both sides of my brain. I also have to engage the person I’m photographing in conversation to make him comfortable.
I try to soak in the entire experience. Of course I want to take a good picture, but more important to me is hearing the subjects’ stories—creating a bond between me and the individual, and hopefully creating a connection with the person I’m photographing.
What has the project achieved so far?
It’s a collaborative effort between me, the men I photograph, as well as the individuals who visit the blog and help share it. It’s not just my project, it belongs to everyone who is helping to build it. It has grown—I believe it has the potential to be an important resource site that documents the lives of gay men around the world at a specific time in history.
And because of that, I’ve gotten to a point where I think it’s important to show as diverse a collection of images and stories as possible. When I first started, I was photographing anyone and everyone. But as it has progressed, I understand it’s going to take an effort to get the true diversity that I hope for. That includes all diversities—in age, body shape, socioeconomic status, etc.
I have a long way to go, but I’m confident that when this is finished, it will serve as the collective stories of the true diverse experience of gay men around the world.
Let’s talk about your gadgets. Which among your cameras is your favorite?
I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II. My favorite camera is actually a Mamiya 465, which is a medium-format film camera. But for this project it’s not practical to shoot with film.
What are your thoughts on those who are still coming to terms with being gay?
One of the most important things I’ve learned through my own process of building my identity is that it’s about much more than just coming to terms with being gay. It’s about coming to terms with who you are as a person and everything it entails. It’s a lifelong process, and being gay is just one facet, though for me, it’s a very important one.
The decision to be openly gay is a personal one, and I know for myself it was important for me to come out at my own pace. But once I did, I can say I felt such a freedom that I can honestly say it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I’ve met hundreds of gay men around the world and heard their stories. And I can say, without a doubt, that not a single person ever regretted coming out.