What defines you?
Finding the answer(s) to that seemingly simple yet hugely profound question is the cornerstone of Sarah Deragon’s LGBTQ portrait series, The Identity Project. The Identity Project is a series of portraits meant to reflect the beautiful diversity of the LGBTQ community, explore the labels LGBTQ individuals use to define their sexuality and gender, and increase the visibility of a diversity of LGBTQ self-expressions. Deragon seeks those who identify as POC, trans*, bisexual, youth, elders, disabled, immigrant, or otherwise outside of mainstream gay and lesbian culture to participate.
A longtime photographer, Deragon quit her full time job in August 2012 to start her own photography business. She now owns Portraits To the People in San Francisco, and runs the studio with her wife, Natalie. The Identity Project got started in January 2014 with a photo of Deragon containing the caption “Queer Femme” and grew from there. Deragon expected the project would be small, but within the first 6 months she had photographed over 200 LGBTQ individuals in the San Francisco Bay Area. Deragon has since traveled to Portland, New York, and Chicago thanks to funds from an Indiegogo campaign.
Participants in The Identity Project choose three words to describe their unique identity, and are given 2-4 photos to choose from after the shoot. The participant’s favorite photo is added to the website gallery, and a high-resolution version of the second-favorite photo is given to the participant to use however they choose. Speaking of her own identity, Deragon said, “I currently identify as a Queer Femme. Might add Glitter in there, too, though, just for fun: Queer Glitter Femme.”
Deragon said one one of her favorite things about the identity project so far is the other projects around the world which have been inspired by it, including a “Queer the Streets” art initative, a wheatpaste project out of the University of Minnesota, and a version of the Identity Project inFrance. “I’ve also made deeply personal connections with some of the participants and they wouldn’t have been in my life without photographing them. I love the folks that have come into my life because of it!” Deragon added.
The Testimonials page of The Identity Project website is full of participants lauding the importance and value of the project. “Sarah Deragon takes identity politics of alphabet soup (LGBPTQQI) and our gay world to a whole new level by complicating labels, but doing so by using the simplicity of candid images in black and white. Her project allows us to define ourselves; and unifies us through our common beauty. Through the expansive self-labeling done by each person in the project, Sarah will give the larger “straight” world a point of connection, commonality and affinity with those queer-dos platformed in the project.” said Dana, who identifies as a Bad Ass Queer Femme Mama.
“Someone once told me I ‘couldn’t be both trans and queer,’ because they were opposites and cancelled each other out. Not sure how that logic was divined, but it messed with my head for a week regardless until I realized: who are they to tell me who I am capable of being? I already am who I say I am. End of discussion. I wanted to participate in The Identity Project in order to challenge the labels society has chosen for me, and to stand up for the labels I have chosen for myself. I take comfort in the fact that there are many of us who assert our labels in defiance of society’s categorical assignments.” said Elliot, who identifies as a Dapper Trans Queer.
Deragon said response to the project so far has been overwhelmingly positive. She believes that is because The Identity Project resonates with people by challenging preconceived notions of what it means to be LGBTQ in today’s society. “Not only are the portraits striking,” Deragon said, “[but] the participants in the project are playing with language, making up entirely new terms (transgenderqueer or inbetweener), and showing pride in their complex and ever changing identities.”
The Identity Project has been featured in dozens of articles by queer and feminist websites, including Bust, Jezebel, Bustle, and The Advocate to name a few. “Most of the feedback about the project has been super positive,” Deragon said. “Of course there’s some controversy – this photo project was meant to start conversations. Just read any of the comments below the articles about the project and you’ll get an ear full.”
The Identity Project is coming to Austin May 16-17, and the deadline for applications is Monday, May 11. Anyone who submits an application will be able to participate in the project. The application form can be located on the homepage of the project website. Speaking of her impending trip, Deragon said, “It is going to be super fun and I can’t wait to get to Austin and meet the community.” After leaving Austin, Deragon will travel to Columbus, OH to complete her tour for the project.
This article was originally published by The Horn on 05/10/2015.
UPDATE: Here is my Identity Project photo from the Austin shoot, courtesty of Sarah Deragon.