Last May, when Tara Robertson began taking pictures of her friends in Philly’s LGBT community, the 24-year-old University of the Arts photography major didn’t expect that what was intended to be her senior-year fine-arts project would evolve into a potent campaign for gay equality in Pennsylvania.
But that’s precisely what she’s created with her ongoing “Our Alphabet” series: More than 70 striking black-and-white portraits of LGBTs, young and old, wearing white T-shirts bearing Sharpie-scrawled expressions of their experiences, fears, pride and resolve. Straight folks, too, donning their own messages of solidarity and support. Some of the images are somber, powerful, moving; others are joyful, funny, uplifting.
Already garnering attention online—Robertson’s been posting the photos on a Tumblr page as she shoots them—the series comes at a particularly crucial time when many in the LGBT community feel that momentum in the uphill battle for equality has stalled. Gay marriage in Pennsylvania is still a distant dream. Gay-rights groups continue to fight for anti-discrimination ordinances since there’s still no state law protecting LGBT citizens from employment or housing discrimination. Further, as PW reported last week, PA doesn’t recognize sexual orientation as a category of hate crimes. And the unlikely but not impossible prospect of a Rick Santorum presidency has Robertson and others fearful that things could easily get worse instead of better.
“We’re not necessarily being brutalized in public as much anymore, but we’re not being accepted, either,” says Robertson. “We’re tolerated, and that’s not good enough. We need to push beyond that. That’s a big part of what this is about.”
It’s just before noon on a recent Saturday, and like most of her Saturdays over the past nine months, the lively, gregarious Robertson is busy setting up her lighting and camera gear in a small studio on the 15th floor of the UArts building at Broad and Walnut streets. Hendrik, one of the series’ earliest subjects who’s since become one of Robertson’s closest friends, is on hand to help out. Noah Stoner, a local filmmaker who’s making a documentary about the project, hangs in the back with his video camera.
A couple people are scheduled to come by to be photographed, but growing word-of-mouth about the weekly “Our Alphabet” shoots means Robertson occasionally gets random walk-ins during the three-hour sessions, too. There’s a table with fresh white tees and Sharpies for subjects to create their shirts on the spot.
Robertson, who grew up in West Chester, explains that the series wasn’t inspired so much by her own coming out a few years ago—a fairly trauma-free event thanks to her “ultra-liberal, hippie parents”—as the intense, often troubling stories she’s heard from many of her LGBT friends and acquaintances. “They’ve gone through so much, and I wanted to help them share that stuff if they want to, just to let it out,” she says.
The first few shoots were tentative, and the messages on the shirts fluffy or cliche, Robertson admits. “They’d quote Katy Perry, ‘I kissed a girl and I liked it,’ or ‘Gay = Happy,’ things like that.”
So she’d put the lens cap back on, sit and talk with her subjects for a while, and encourage them to go deeper. “It’s like a therapy session,” says Robertson. “Some people are naturally scared to be vulnerable in front of the camera.”
Edward “Blaze” Waters has been living in his house on Orthodox Street in the city’s Frankford section for 20 years, and has been sharing it with his boyfriend, 34-year-old Justin Benoit, for the last two. They say a couple weeks ago, they came home to find a homemade sign, a slab of wood bigger than a door, propped up on the porch of their neighbor’s house. Since the houses are only about a foot apart, the sign—which had “MOVE FAGS” spray-painted on it—towered over the couple’s front porch space.
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