Kevin Truong is a New York based photographer with a unique ambition: to photograph as many gay men as he possibly can.
Truong, who is openly gay, said that for a long time he was ashamed of his sexuality. He recalls coming out to his mother: “I remember she looked very confused,” Truong told 429Magazine. “Later she said, ‘I was trying to picture what you were going to look like. I was thinking you were going to change physically.’”
The 31-year-old photographer said his mother’s reaction was part of the reason he started “The Gay Men Project”—a visual catalog of gay men.
“Essentially I wanted people like my mom to see that there is no look,” he said. “There’s no look to being a gay guy. You are just who you are.”
Truong says his objective is to create a platform for gay men “so that they may stand and say, ‘This is my story.’” So far, he has photographed about 350 men.
Though his photography is striking, the format is simple: a short, written biography from each man, married to the powerful minimalism of the image. There is no professional makeup, no wardrobe. The photos are as real as the people they portray. They are personal, sometimes taken in the subject’s own home, which adds an even deeper sense of intimacy.
Truong photographs men from all over the world and has traveled everywhere from London to Vietnam. Indeed, through his extensive “visual catalog,” Truong proves undeniably that there is no one “look” to being a gay man.
In one series, a Brazilian political advisor lies in a hammock in his Rio de Janeiro home, bathing in the muted sunlight that slips through the blinds. He’s young, perhaps in his thirties, but the way he stares directly into the camera, his dark eyes steady and assured, divulges a sense of age. He is dressed in a cutoff tank top and plaid shorts, his fingers ornamented with silver rings and black, painted nails.
In another, an American comedian in a black Henley and dark blue jeans, sits on a modern leather couch in his New York City apartment. Above his warm, blue eyes, his graying hair is carefully coiffed with gel. Two thick, black stripes wrap around his forearm, one of his several tattoos. Behind him, black-framed art hangs in rows on a beige wall, and the coffee table displays a bevy of neatly stacked X-Men comic books.
Truong believes that photographing these men and honoring the diversity among them has been a fulfilling experience that has helped him accept his own sexuality.
“I’m trying to resolve something within myself,” Truong told 429Magazine. “I get a lot of self-fulfillment in finding these commonalties and experiences from these very different men, literally from across the world—but there’s always that commonality. It’s really interesting to me.”
As we continued our conversation, I was struck by Truong’s utter humility. Rather than spend time touting his talents as a photographer, he was far more focused on the people he’s connected with through “The Gay Men Project,” and how important they are to the success of the project. Truong is so genuinely grateful, and that graciousness certainly translates into his work.
“It’s not my project; it’s something that all of us are doing and helping to support,” he said. “The photography is the hook that draws people in. If anything is going to make a difference, it’s the stories—these guys sharing their experiences of what it’s like to be a gay man.”
I asked Truong why he decided to photograph gay men exclusively, rather than broadening his project to the entire LGBT community, a question he apparently hears quite often.
“Every portrait I shoot of these guys is kind of a self-portrait of myself. One of the questions I get a lot is, ‘do you photograph lesbians?’ And actually, I did for a while,” said Truong.
“What it came down to is I feel this is such a personal project for me…I’m doing it to work through my own issues as a gay man,” he added. “As much as there is a shared identification among the entire LGBT community, I do think that in a lot of respects there’s as much difference between a gay man and a gay woman as there are with straight men and straight women.”
Since Truong has traveled around the globe photographing gay men of all ages and backgrounds, I was eager to ask which series had meant the most to him.
“I photographed a gay priest when I was in England,” he said. “I took this bus out to some small village outside of London. I was raised Catholic, and he was Anglican.
“I do have a strong faith in God, and I always have by virtue of my upbringing, and also it’s just something I choose to believe as an adult. My relationship with God was something I struggled with. So having the opportunity to sit down and talk to this priest…” Truong’s voice trailed off, and he paused a moment.
He continued, “I asked him, ‘Do you think God is okay with me being gay?’ I think what I meant was maybe it’s just my cross to bear and I shouldn’t act on it. And [the priest]said, ‘You know, Kevin, out of all the sins that God is concerned about, of all the bad things you could do, being gay is very, very low on his list.’”
After Truong told me the story of the priest, he related back to his feelings as a young adult struggling with his developing sexuality.
“When I was young and still in the closet, I was so ashamed of being gay. I was terrified of people finding out,” said Truong. “So to be at a place in my life where I’m thirty-one and could care less who knows if I’m gay, and the fact that it’s something that I’m proud of, and to see it as something that has made my life so much richer, that’s an important place for me to be. I want to give these other men that opportunity.”
And if the talented and compassionate photographer ever had any doubt about the impact of his project, such skepticism could be laid to rest by the many messages he receives from LGBT people everywhere, all thanking him for his work.
“I got this letter from a girl in Kenya once. She found the blog and she said, ‘I read your story about coming out to your mom, and it was really comforting. I hope someday to be able to come out to my mom.’”
He added, “I live in New York City. I have a community of gay men, but I am very highly aware of the fact that not everyone has that access.”
Although he lives in one of the most LGBT accepting cities in the nation, if not the world, Truong has had his experiences with intolerance.
“When I was 26, I joined the Peace Corps, and I was placed in a country where it was illegal to be gay,” he said. “I knew this going into it because [the Peace Corps]told me, ‘we want you to do this. You have our support, but you have to go back into the closet for your own safety.’ I was down in Belize, and I was only there for about two months before I left. I couldn’t do it—it was too hard for me to go back into the closet.”
Truong told me that in the moment when he decided he couldn’t be in a place that forced him to conceal his orientation, he believed he’d finally crossed a barrier and become a proud gay man. Nonetheless, years later, during an informal conversation while photographing former “Today Show” news anchor Ann Curry, he broke down in tears while relating his experience in Belize.
“I’m crying with Ann, and I say, ‘you know what, Ann, I’m really not okay with being gay.’” Truong said his epiphany helped him realize the healing he had left to do. “The Gay Men Project” and the men he has photographed have proved an essential medicine.
“A part of me will always be that kid who was sixteen and so afraid of being outed. So every time I meet someone else who can identify with that, that kid has a little bit more comfort…Coming out doesn’t happen in one day. It’s a lifelong process.
“Through this project, I realized that while being gay doesn’t define my entire being, it’s a huge part of it. It influences the way I see the world and the way the world sees me,” said Truong.
In regards to the future of the project: “Life is all about energy and momentum, and I feel like I’m on a roll right now. I’m excited to see how far all of us can take it.”
Note: all photos taken above, by Kevin Truong