Every picture tells a story
Photographer Scott Pasfield on portraying 'Gay in America'
by Gregg Shapiro
Taking its rightful place alongside coffee-table photo books such as Tom Atwood's Kings in Their Castles, David Fields and the late Anderson Jones' Men Together, and Michael Goff and Out magazine's Out in America is the new Gay in America (Welcome Books, $45) by Scott Pasfield. Consisting of photos of 140 gay male subjects and their unique stories, Gay in America is a colorful portrait of 21st-century gay life in all 50 states. I spoke with Pasfield about the book and future projects.
Gregg Shapiro: My partner and I have two dogs, so one of the first things I noticed in the pictures was that there are more than a dozen pictures of men and dogs.
Scott Pasfield: And so many dogs got cut from the book! There was something like 35 dogs that I photographed over the course of the project. I was always excited to try and include pets when I could, they are such an important part of gay men's lives. If the pets were around and seemed intrigued by the whole process, I asked if we could try to get them in the shot, and most pet owners were happy about that. The dogs by far were the most popular. I think there were five cats, some goats and lots of birds, too.
Who had the final say in the setting, what was worn, and what pets would be included?
I had the final say in terms of editing the pictures and narrowing it down to my favorites, then supplying the publishers with those options. The designer and I always were on the same page in terms of selecting the final image. I would try to do a couple of different locations in the person's house so that we'd have options afterwards. Usually I asked the guys beforehand to dress in their most comfortable clothes. In instances where I felt like it wasn't the perfect choice, we would revisit some of their clothes. I would say 98% of the time what they wore ended up in the final shoot.
What came first in the process, the photos or the subjects' stories?
I decided who to go photograph based on their story. They had to write the story to me, and have that leap of faith and honesty to share that. Their story had to ring true to me, and it became very clear right away who was right for the book and who wasn't.
Of the 140 men, five are from Alaska, and seven from Georgia, but only one from Illinois. How did that kind of geography come to pass?
The stories dictated who I picked, so long as every state was represented at least once. You would think that some places, like Chicago, would be very easy, but for some reason it wasn't. People didn't reach out to me in the same way. Many times I thought, "Why is it so difficult to find someone in New Orleans?" I went to New Orleans three times looking for that perfect New Orleans person, and couldn't find him. It was a very interesting process. I looked at it like, "Wow, so many guys from Alaska and Maine!" I had no idea I would be blown away by the amazing gay men in Maine. There were so many gay men in Maine that wrote me the most wonderful stories. I picked five, and I could have picked 20.
More than a few times in the book, there are men who say that they "happen to be gay." What do you think that says about being gay in America?
So many people in society want gay men to distinguish themselves from the rest of society by that one sexual trait. Because I'm gay, therefore that defines me. Many gay men say, "I am so-and-so of a person. I have these interests, and I went through this and I overcame it, and I just happen to be gay. That's not the whole reason why I went through all of these things."
How different do you think this book would have been if you'd done it 10 or 20 years ago?
The Internet played a big part in how I found people. It would have been much more difficult to find them. The thing that surprised me the most is the regularness of all these guys. Ten, maybe 20 years ago, I'm not quite sure how I would have found the same men, because they're not going to gay community centers. But I was really able to connect with a lot of gay men that are under the radar.
Did you learn things about gay men that you didn't know before?
I talk a lot in the introduction about why I did the book, and the personal issues that I had to work out with my father, with his being born again and condemning my lifestyle. Really, a lot of the reason for the book was to search out that wisdom from gay men in determining how to live a happy, fulfilled life, and not let other people's views of homosexuality affect your being. Having a disapproving parent or family really affects gay people. And I was able to learn from them how not to let all that get to you. To understand that it's just a part of who you are, and how you can be a happy, fulfilled person, provide in your community, give back, and still love yourself. So much of the pain that many gay people experience is from when the people we love tell you that it is wrong. It's a very hard thing to overcome. The more we share our stories, the more we understand what it means to be gay in America.
What can you tell me about your book tour?
Besides doing signings at bookstores, we also tried to book venues that would reach a larger audience. We just booked Rice University, and we're trying to get into other gender studies programs, to show the normalness in these stories. Like Ken, for example, how not being in a relationship that would be accepted by others affected finding himself in the hospital and not being able to see his loved one. Hospital rights and parenting issues, a lot of gay folks struggle with how to come out to their kids.
Have you begun to think about your next book project?
I'm torn between two things right now. I think it would be amazing to do the same thing in Europe for gay men, and travel to 52 countries in the European Union right now. And I would also love to do the same thing in America for lesbians that I did for gay men. There's even more stereotypes with lesbians from society's viewpoint than with gay men. I think they need a book like this to show how so many lesbians are living under the radar. Some lesbians have already expressed their anger with me for not including them in the book, and I feel a certain responsibility to try to do the same thing with women now.
Scott Pasfield will be at a presentation and signing at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, on Sun., Oct. 2, at 7 p.m. Info: (415) 927-0960, www.gayinamerica.us