Vietnamese photographer captures coming out stories–his and theirs

HANOI, Vietnam (MindaNews/07 March) — New York City-based photographer Kevin Truong was 26 years old when he came out as gay to his Vietnamese mother.

“I remember sitting across from her at the dining room table, and telling her I’m gay,” he recalled. “And I’ll always remember the look on her face–she literally looked so confused.”

Kevin narrated that coming out to his mother caused her to be 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. As a fifty-seven-year-old Vietnamese woman, [my mother] had no reference points. She was relying on stereotypes that I don’t feel are accurate, to try and visualize what I was going to look like as a gay man,” he said.

That was when his photographic genius struck. “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 Gay Men Project.

300 stories and counting, in the words of Kevin, 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 merely photographing my gay friends in New York City,” he described. “I was still shooting with film, so I would make prints and hang them up in class. And when I would hang up the prints, my classmates seemed to be very interested about the stories behind each person.”

From there he kicked off by putting all of his works online along with stories of his subjects and more photos now taken with a digital camera.

He said that the first guy that he ever photographed was a friend–one of the first people he met when he moved to New York City. The number of his photo collection grew in number as he photographed one friend after another. “Eventually I ran out of people to photograph and had to start actively seeking out other participants who would be interested.”

Today, Kevin counts that he has photographed over 300 men who shared their stories in The Gay Men Project. His subjects are from the world over: from London to Rio de Janeiro, and from Paris to Ho Chi Minh. Kevin’s unique style in photography, which he describes as more documentary, gives life and emotion to his subjects and their stories. “I try to create images that are authentic and genuine, and almost always rely on the ambient light.”

Shared identities

Hearing their stories, Kevin came to a beautiful realization: “The thing I find most interesting, is that I think 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 discussed in detail that, for example, men in Vietnam and men in Brazil are culturally very 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.

“Being gay isn’t a choice, but the decision to live openly about it is. So the stories are all very similar, though the stage and characters are very different,” Kevin pointed out. “There’s always the emotions of feeling different, possibly alone and ashamed. And then there’s that moment we decide to accept our identities to ourselves, and eventually beginning the process of sharing it with other people. Of course the specific story arcs are very different, but the thought processes are usually pretty much the same.”

Kevin believes that The Gay Men Project works because of an already “shared identification” among his subjects and because of trust.

“This project has it’s foundations in trust. At this point, when I’m photographing a guy for the project, 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 100% always do. And I think it’s because of that shared understanding of what it means to be gay, no matter where we are from,” Kevin discussed.

When asked what life lesson he learned from the process of making the project, Kevin answered: “The biggest thing I’m learning is how connected the world is. I photographed a guy in Ho Chi Minh City who knew a guy whom I went to high school with in America. I photographed 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 actually think it is very small. We all live in it together, and I want to see as much of it as I can.”

And to see the world is what he intends to do. On March 2, he launched a Kickstarter to raise $30,000 to “run The Gay Men Project the way I dream of doing it.” He is eyeing to further his project by traveling, finding stories, and making more photos for a period of six months, covering 15 countries starting August later this year.

Up close

Kevin was born in a refugee camp for Vietnamese boat people in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before he and his family immigrated to the United States. His first return to Vietnam was an enlightenment of all sorts.

“I only recently went back to Vietnam for the first time in my life, last July (2013),” he said. “It was a profound experience on so many levels, but what was most compelling to me was the opportunity to connect with and learn from the people I met. Having been raised in America, I often take my Vietnamese heritage for granted, so I was grateful for the opportunity 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.

MindaNews: What are the things that run through your head as you make photos?

Kevin: Actually, to be very honest, since I’ve done this nearly 350 different times, I’ve become very systematic about the process of photographing these men. Photography can be very difficult because it can be very technical while being creative at the same time, so I’m constantly forced to use both sides of my brain. I also have to engage the person I’m photographing in conversation to keep him comfortable.

Really, I try to soak in the entire experience. Of course I want to take a good picture, but more important to me is hearing all these stories. Creating that bond between me and the individual, and hopefully creating a connection with the person I’m photographing.

MindaNews: Over time, how do you feel about the project as it tells stories and voices out for the gay men around the world?

Kevin: As the project has grown, I truly believe it has to potential to be a really important resource that will stand the test of time. It’s a very 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.

At its very core, I do believe I’m helping to create a resource that documents the lives of gay men from around the world, at a very 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 diversity—in age, body shape, socio economic status, etc.

I have a long way to go, but I’m confident that when this is finished, it really will serve as the collective stories of the true diverse experience of gay men around the world.

MindaNews: Name some of your handy gadgets. Which among your cameras is your favorite?

Kevin: 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 the purposes of this project it’s not very practical to shoot with film.

MindaNews: Any thoughts to share for those who are still coming to terms with being gay?

Kevin: One of the most important things I’ve learned through my own process of building my identity is that it’s about so 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 that 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 very 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 literally hundreds of gay men around the world, and heard hundreds of stories. And I can say without a doubt, not a single person ever regretted coming out.

(Jesse Pizarro Boga is a fellow of FK Norway’s Communication Exchange Program in Asia. He’s currently in Hanoi, Vietnam, riding a motorbike and excessively using its horn. Follow him on Instagram @jesiramoun)