Familiarity is the Gateway Drug to Empathy

By: Terri Lucas, MA Student

April 27, 2018

I find that watching Ted Talks online is an excellent form of procrastination – I can convince myself I’m still learning something and so it’s OK that I’m not doing the jobs on my to-do list. Today, I watched a Ted Talk video from 2012 called Fifty Shades of Gay. In it, iO Tillett Wright talks about photographing thousands of people across America who consider themselves to be something other than 100% straight. The project, Self Evident Truths, began as a response to Proposition 8 – not in direct response to marriage laws in America but to its underlying human rights issues. iO decided to use photography to produce portraits of human beings who consider themselves to be on the LGBTQ+ spectrum so that those in favour of Prop 8 could look at the portraits and see who they are rendering second-class citizens. iO aims to take photos of 10,000 people and create an installation in Washington DC.


The talk explores issues of boxes, labels and binaries in relation to identity and human rights. iO discusses learning about diversity through this project and seeing that the diversity among LGBTQ+ people is as varied as it is between all humans. It’s interesting to hear iO discuss the moment of realization that this project itself puts people in a box. As a result, iO added a question to the photo release form, asking the people being photographed to state where their sexuality fits on a scale of 0-100. The majority of people responded that they considered themselves to be somewhere between 3-20% or 70-95%. From this, iO asks: where do you draw the line with a law that discriminates against LGBTQ+ people? Who does the law consider to be gay? Where exactly does one become a second-class citizen?


I really like art as a form to explore human rights, political issues, dominant ideologies and equality because it can highlight complexities and tensions without being bound to finding a neat solution. In the talk, iO draws out some of the complexities with the Self Evident Truths project.


While the project is limited in that it deals with one type of oppression in one part of the world, the concept deals with global issues of identity and othering. When talking about travelling across America to take photos, iO states: “Familiarity really is the gateway drug to empathy.” I thought it was a great quote. Everyone around the world is labelled as something and that label(s) can be used to give them privilege and power or other them. Ideas of difference and unfamiliarity perpetuate the notion of the Other. Edward Said argued that the imperial West created orientalism: an image of the East as different and inferior. This idea of the Orient not only creates difference but works to define the West. When someone with privilege describes an Other, they are also defining themselves by saying that this Other is something that they are not. But through familiarity, an Other can become less scary and less different or no longer defined by difference. When we stop looking for differences we can see each other as human beings. We can start to see that while we may be different in some respects we are similar in others. And I agree with iO – that familiarity can lead to empathy.


But does photography create familiarity or is there a risk of voyeurism? Images of people can be used to expose or scandalize apparent or real differences, serving to encourage an othering. This is especially true when they are accompanied by tales of the strange or unusual. How do people use photography to create messages or to reinforce or challenge dominant ideologies? Self Evident Truths works to create familiarity and to challenge the idea that everyone who identifies as LGBTQ+ is the same. The photographic portraits present human beings. iO’s message is that we are all the same and all different.


After watching the talk, I wanted to learn more about the project and see where it’s up to so I had a look at the Self Evident Truths website. iO has almost reached the target of 10,000 photos and is seeking funding towards the installation. Celebrities are endorsing the campaign so it appears to have gained publicity. Hopefully, we’ll get to see the installation soon. I think it will have a big impact and get a lot of attention when it appears in Washington DC. When people look at the portraits I hope they do see something familiar in the faces looking back at them because if we replace hatred with empathy I think we’ll all feel happier.