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January 3, 2009

Which One’s Gay?

weston_dave.jpg  

Tell me, which of these two is gay? (Or, are they both?)

The diptych above was created by BYU student photographer Michael Wiltbank for an exhibition last month at the university’s Harris Fine Arts Center. The show created a controversy when the university temporarily removed these photos. (On his blog, Wiltbank offered a description of the incident along with additional images from the show, then provided a follow up reacting to the university restoration of the exhibition.)

My interest, however, is primarily in the images and the strategy behind them. As Wiltbank explains in the artist’s statement:

These portraits are of BYU students who identify themselves as homosexual and a person that supports them. This support person could be a family member, friend or may also identify themselves as homosexual and both people may provide support to each other. I have not included labels with these portraits as I feel that labels only create separation and division and further ungrounded stereotypes. We never know who may identify themselves as homosexual and I felt that not labeling these images would force us as a society to question what it is to be homosexual.

I’m thinking my experience, in studying these portraits, has got to be pretty common.

At first, Wiltbank’s strategy caused me to intently study both faces, trying to pierce the ambiguity. Was that slicked hair and the slightly confrontative gaze more indicative of homosexuality, or was the orientation more reflected in the earnest and open expression? After going diligently if naively back and forth, however, I came to a pivot point where the given circumstances unraveled, leaving the larger point that the issue of sexual identity doesn’t necessarily have all that much too do with surface.

Now, if I asked you which one looked Mormon….

Adapted from a post by Matt Lutton at DVAFoto.

  • http://idaimages.wordpress.com Ida

    As soon as I read the title of the post, I stopped trying to compare the two photographs. The idea of support is curiously vague. I began imagining the broader circumstances under which “support” becomes a vital part of maintaining an identity, lifestyle, or right. And then the complicated tendency to separate out the support from the supported. These photographs show that it is impossible to separate them out visually. I did not ask what it is like to be homosexual, as Wiltbank hopes that I would. I asked what it is like to be in a society where homosexuality is vitally connected to and separated out from its support.

  • NinaBerman

    Looking at the images, I wondered if this was a coming out moment for the subjects, and if being paired this way, made the moment easier. I wondered about the conversations it must be generating at school and if there has been a backlash, other than the incident of their temporary removal. I did not get any deep understanding into the subjects themselves, but it seems to me that wasn’t the point. It’s a very clever project, all the more so because it comes out of BYU.

  • http://stephencrose.wordpress.com/ Stephen C. Rose

    This reminds me of a page I did sometime back — an ethnic identity quiz made up of unidentified photos of mortal enemies.
    http://stephencrose.wordpress.com/2006/12/23/who-shall-we-kill-today-an-ethnic-identity-quiz/

  • thomas

    Lewis Lapham once archly derided conservative’s conception of fine art as something made by children and sold to old women by homosexuals. But I’m not so sure that it is fair to tag conservatives alone with that construction.

  • http://www.bizimlesohbet.com sohbet

    What a bunch of insensitive bastards

  • http://www.bizimlesohbet.com sohbet

    Looking at the images, I wondered if this was a coming out moment for the subjects, and if being paired this way, made the moment easier. I wondered about the conversations it must be generating at school and if there has been a backlash, other than the incident of their temporary removal

  • Posey

    I was struck right away by the fact that in both pictures the eyes are most sharply in focus, arrestingly so, to the point that it takes some effort to focus on any other part of the faces.

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