You've probably never heard of Kevin Truong, but his face is on the move.
Truong, with his blond mop and orange baseball shirt, can now be seen on TriMet buses running to Portland State University. The PSU ads feature Truong, a 2004 grad, in a marketing campaign aimed at recruiting transfer students to the university.
Why Truong? Because he's the creator of what he calls the Gay Men Project, his 500-plus photos (so far) of gay men worldwide.
The project grew out of an assignment at New York's Pratt Institute. Truong has his since photographed men from the suburbs of Baltimore to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
Truong's mother and two older sisters were refugees from Vietnam, and he was born in Malaysia in 1982 while his family waited for a chance to move to the U.S. He grew up in East Portland and first came out while a PSU student.
He now lives in New York City, where he used the online fundraising site Kickstarter to finance a yearlong trip around the world to expand the Gay Men Project. He hopes the photos and online profiles of his subjects will help others struggling with their sexual identity.
Before departing on his global trip, Truong talked to WW about why he left the Peace Corps, how his mother became proud he's gay, and why he wants his photos to be a little dull.
WW: How's your gaydar?
Kevin Truong: I'm actually very boy-crazy. Sometimes I think, "Oh, that guy's gay just because he's looking at me." Then I think, "Oh wait, I think he's looking at me because I'm looking at him." With guys that I've photographed, I do feel that there is this connection. There definitely is the sense of identification.
Why did you pursue photography?
I got accepted for the Peace Corps, and my intro packet said, "Welcome, you're going to go to Belize." One of the last paragraphs in one of the last pages said, "It should be noted that it is illegal to be gay in this country." I was there for two months and I broke down. I was sitting underneath a palm tree and I asked myself, "Kevin, if you could do anything, what would you want to do?" I decided I wanted to go to New York City and go to art school.
How did you come up with the idea for the Gay Men Project?
My sophomore year at Pratt, it was just a photo project. The other students would critique the pictures, but they were more interested in the stories behind these guys. I would spend a lot of time telling their stories. For me, it was this way for me to work out my own insecurities about being gay by meeting these other men. They tell me about their lives, and I can identify. I've built a community.
How did your experience growing up influence the project?
I never had a dad. I never had a father figure. From about fourth grade, I can remember taking swimming lessons and wanting to stay longer when we were getting dressed because I wanted to see what the instructor looked like naked. I had never seen a naked man. It wasn't a sexual thing because I was a kid. It was just this curiosity.
In middle school, I remember stealing my brother-in-law's porn and paying more attention to the guy. I always think about myself at that age when I'm doing this project. It's something I would have benefited from when I was still in the closet. I would have benefited from seeing this blog, seeing these individuals, and the normalcy of their life. I want these images to be a little boring and be a little normal.
How did your family react when you told them about the project?
When I came out to my mom, she said everything she was supposed to say. For a few years, it was never mentioned except for randomly. While we were in the car, she would say, "So are you done being gay?"
My mom and I went back to Vietnam last summer. A part of it was for me to photograph for the Gay Men Project. She was actually acting as my translator. I always ask the guy a question afterward, so I have this written component.
This young man, his name was June, had written back the answer in Vietnamese of his experience of being a gay man in Ho Chi Minh City. I sent it to my mom, and she sent back the text translated. And then she wrote, "You should share it with the world."
To me that was awesome because it was really the first time that she was, in a sense, proud of the fact that I was gay.
What's your ultimate goal for the project?
To create images and stories that people can see from all over the world for free.
I'm trying to create something that is a positive place. If I change one person I'll be happy. I guess I have to be content and happy already because I was able to change my mom.
Now PSU has you on the side of buses.
I panicked a little bit. It's that ingrained. I thought, I'm going to be on a bus and the text is going to be "Gay Project" in my face. But when I saw it, I felt really proud. I actually wanted everyone to see it. It was really my Carrie Bradshaw moment.
SEE IT: Kevin Truong's photography of gay men from around the world can be seen on the Gay Men Project website, thegaymenproject.com.