An interview with Scott Pasfield, creator of Gay in America, by Aaron McQuade, associate news director of GLAAD. www.glaad.org
AM: Where did the idea for this book come from?
SP: It came out of many different places, actually. I needed to reinvent myself for my career; I felt I had reached a stagnant point in my artistic life. When you turn your hobby into your career, it takes a lot more effort to keep the love alive, especially when the economy made it very difficult for me. I felt that if nobody was going to give me my ideal job, or project, or thing to prove what I could do, instead of waiting for it I decided to go out there and create it on my own.
So I decidedly took an attempt at writing down all the things I needed to change in my life, and those included wanting to love photography again, and also make friends, and travel, and do good for people. I think we’re given a set of talents in life, and you can make money with those talents, which is good, but you can also try to use them for the better. I decided if I could create a project that would help something – people always tell you to shoot what you love. You have to start with yourself.
The epiphany came one night at home. I was online, I think I was on Craigslist, but I was looking at all the listing of the states and cities, and it just dawned on me. I decided that I would go around, meet someone from every state, and photograph them in the hopes that I could do a book that would change opinions and educate some people. And that started with shooting who I was and what my passions were.
AM: What is it about this project that speaks to you as an artist?
SP: I‘ve learned so much from shooting these portraits, I have much more confidence now walking in and meeting somebody that I didn’t know before. The challenge – usually when you’re doing portraits for a job you’ll have time to set up, you’ll scout the location, you’ll know what you’re walking in to, you’ll task an assistant with the lighting, you’ll shoot Polaroids – now you’ll just shoot with your regular camera and check it out – so when the person walks in that you’ll ultimately photographing, everything’s all set. It’s relaxed, the room is peaceful and calm, and it gives them a great sense of well-being.
But with a project like this, where I was traveling around, not knowing anything about the location, I found it very challenging and good for me. It was a way to really push myself and my art; you show up and have the person that you’re going to be photographing with you the whole time, you have to engage them, keep them involved in the process without boring them, and move fast so that it can happen quickly. Usually two to three hours is what it takes me to do one of these shoots, so somebody has to dedicate a little bit of time to it. But I think the challenge is just never knowing, and really pushing yourself to try and get something to happen in front of the camera that is an insight into that person.
AM: Was the choice to shoot these on the home turf of your subjects a storytelling choice or was it an artistic challenge choice on your part?
SP: Both. I think that going to someone’s environment and shooting – a lot of times I used a wide angle lens where I would capture a lot of the environment in addition to some tighter shots – but usually, it was their environment shots, and that told a great story. It usually speaks tons about people. And they were also very comfortable in their environment, so I wouldn’t want to take everybody and pull them out of their house, and shoot them against a white, seamless background. It really doesn’t tell much about the person. For this project, I think to educate people and give them a glimpse into gay men’s worlds, shooting in their homes was needed.
AM: Why gay men?
SP: That goes back to sort of shooting what I am, and what I know. I originally thought that I would like to try and shoot men and women from every state, but I really think that a woman, or a lesbian, has to go out and do that project, to make it as strong, and to be one of them, as this project is for me and gay men.
AM: This book is a collection of essays in addition to a collection of portraits, each portrait coincides with an essay. Which should people look at first?
SP: Well, they’re on a spread, where each spread will have one essay and one photograph. They will be varied in terms of layout and design, but you can’t help but look at the photography first. And then you’re going to read the story, and they are so beautifully written. That was, first and foremost, why I selected everybody, was those stories. They had to write me a story that was unique and from the heart and honest, and it became very easy for me to decipher who was genuine in what they were talking about. So I chose everybody for their stories, and once I started the ball rolling, I tried never to repeat something very similar, or repeat similar viewpoints, so I tried to vary it as much as I possibly could.
Even now, after having familiarity with these stories for years, as I read them, they’re so beautiful and powerful, and they’re so emotional for me. Hopefully that will resonate with people, too, because it is the stories that I think are going to have the most effect.
AM: Why the focus on every state? Why a state-by-state thing and not just a set number of people from every region?
SP: It was a goal of mine – I said: fifty states, I have to go to all of them. It became an obsession. And I hadn’t been to a lot of the states, so I really just saw it as a great goal for myself. I think as a collection it really proved to be fascinating.
AM: Were there certain places that surprised you? Did you find somebody in Boston who you would have expected to see in Montana?
SP: Oh, absolutely. You’d always get big cowboy types coming from real urban areas, or the Midwest, but they’d also be typical, too. In the West I got a lot of farmers and ranchers, and cowboys writing to me. But it was always surprising to see who wrote. They were varied all over.
AM: Did any of the stories make you laugh out loud?
SP: Not so much funny stories; more often, I think they made me cry more than anything. So many gay men have such a tough tine becoming at peace with themselves and their families, and growing up in our country. It’s not easy. Things are changing, there’s hope, but more often than not it was giving men a great opportunity to tell their story. And a lot of them had hard stories to tell, or tough things to say.
AM: Did the instructions specifically lead people to go down that road, or is that what naturally came about? Did you say, “Tell me your story?”
SP: Usually I did use the word “story.” And I did say that I was traveling the county. I think the ad went something like – “looking for great, out men who live their life without second guessing, and are proud of who they are, and happy with where they live. I’m looking for men to share their stories about that, to some degree. I’m also looking for your path to where you’ve come from, stories of coming out, or growing up, or your family, or careers,” or things like that, that define them in addition to being gay. So I would ask for coming out stories, and not many men have coming out stories that are so good, but I didn’t want to have it just be that.
AM: Would a book like this have made a difference to your own coming out story?
SP: Absolutely. I wish there was a book like this when I was growing up. And that is why I did it, really, because I wanted this book. I wanted to know that I could live wherever I chose, in any place, in any state, in any situation, in any city, in any town, and do whatever I wanted. I think there’s a tendency today for people to stereotype gay men as being flamboyant, drag queens, hair dressers, florists, and while that’s all true, and we do have a creative tendency and flair, that is certainly not it. There is everything, for every gay man out there. That was one of the beauties, is that I was shocked sometimes to find these tough, rugged men, who had never been into a gay bar in their life, or were just living their life happy, in a monogamous relationship, and doing their thing. And I said, if I knew that was an option, earlier, it would have made more of a difference to me to accept myself earlier and to say, I’m not alone.
AM: What is your favorite photograph in the book?
SP: I don’t think I have one, really. There are so many, they all have such memories attached to them. It’s been so great to work with Greg, the designer who’s putting the book together, who is super talented. To see all of my photographs with new eyes over the last couple of months as it’s come together has been awesome, because some of the pictures that weren’t my favorite before are now, so it’s ever-evolving, I think.
AM: Tell me what you want people to get out of this book. You mentioned your story, and obviously gay people who aren’t out themselves, they’re going to get one thing out of it, but what about somebody who’s never met a gay person?
SP: I think that to educate people, on the whole, to the fact that so many in their world are probably gay and quiet about it and they have no idea, understanding their stories and helping them relate to those people is hopefully what this book will do. I think that people are going to connect with these people and not be threatened by them, and not be scared of their effeminate qualities, or their flamboyant qualities.
We decided to put Dan Choi on the cover, and I think that because he’s in uniform on the cover and it’s a hot topic this past year for gay rights with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, it’s such a shocking image; it’s not what most people would think of for a representation of gay America. You think of a couple holding hands, getting married, or something that might turn a lot of folks off, a lot of people that are a little hesitant about gays, or are conservative, I’m hoping that they pick this book up and they read the stories. Some of my family is so conservative, in showing them the project through the years and having them read the stories, I’ve seen a lot of change from them, and they’ve learned that gays can have stories of love, loss, life, tragedy, happiness, and success like everybody can. It’s been an eye-awakening experience for them to read that we’re all alike.
AM: Any last thoughts?
SP: I think it’s needed in our time and culture. With what’s going on in our country with gay rights, the voting bloc, with issues being decided for us and how we live our life, every one of us needs to do what we can to make life better for ourselves. I think if more people did that and chose to take their love, and do something good with it, we’d make more change in this world. I’m becoming a reluctant activist with this project, and I think it’s a great thing, and I think more people should do it if they can.
AM: Do you think of your subjects as activists?
SP: Many of them are, absolutely, just for taking that step and coming forward, they become activists too. The stories are what it’s all about, so they are activists even if many of them never stepped foot in a gay and lesbian center, or marched in a parade, or wanted to change anybody’s opinion, they just wanted to live their lives, but by doing that, that is what’s going to change peoples’ minds.