Behind the scenes of “Family, Unfettered” by Justin Cook

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“When I first heard about Amendment One, which will constitutionally define marriage between one man and one woman as the only domestic legal union valid and recognized in North Carolina, I scratched my head in disbelief. With all the other problems we face as a society today, I could not understand why codifying a restrictive marriage definition was relevant to our local political dialogue. In North Carolina unemployment is high, children are fat, dogs don’t have homes, veterans are losing their minds after war, people are being shot to death on the other side of the tracks and same-sex marriage is already banned under NC law. I worried about our political priorities.

Most of all I worried about how this legislation would affect my family.

My aunt Molly is gay and she and her partner are two of the most important women in my life. They have been together for almost a decade and are committed to each other but can’t get married. I am getting married to the woman I love at the end of April after being together for over a year and to think that they can’t enjoy the legal benefits and protections I am afforded makes me sick to my stomach. Molly and Susanne have to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees to jerry-rig some unstable paperwork that in theory might allow them to make legal decisions for each other, visit each other in the hospital and decide what to do with each other’s remains after death. Most of all the state sends them the message that they are not a couple.

After some thought, I sent Molly an email and told her about my idea. I wanted to do portraits of longterm, committed same sex couples in their homes, with their kids, their pets, etc to show the public that their commitment to each other and their dedication to family was real. I wanted to interview each one and write their story as a narrative or witness and write about a scene in their daily life that any parent could relate to: playing baseball with your son, bathing your baby or other things that seem mundane and ordinary to us.

Originally I wanted to photograph couples who had been together for 10 years or more, that way there was a thread through the project but that bar lowered to 5 years once I discovered and understood some of their remarkable stories.

Molly sent out an email to the “gayborhood” (her circle of friends, community, as she calls it) and the response was instant and overwhelming. I think I had 50 emails from all sorts of couples who wanted to volunteer.

I decided to do portraits because I had just come off my first year of freelance and had been overwhelmed to a degree by the amount of video I was doing. Work had become formulaic and I wanted to slow down and do what I loved – make carefully composed still pictures that had something to say. I wanted to slow down and engage my subjects one on one and establish a relationship with them, through conversation, dinner, interviews and basic human interaction. I wanted to write, and use my voice to give them a voice. I wanted to do something simple and well crafted. I wanted to hold each family in the light, to portray them with a sense of grace and dignity when others would not. I had been pouring over Annie Leibowitz’s portraits in a book that my brother had brought to my attention. She’s a master at the portrait and I wanted to experiment with her approach. I never reached her mastery and never will, but her work inspired me and pushed me in the direction I needed to go.

But when I met Kelli Evans and Karen Wade and their triplets, I found an obvious multimedia story. Kelli and Karen are tender and fierce – ideal mothers who have deliberately wanted a family since they decided to commit to each other for life. Their love is real and they have made every preparation to make sure their children grow up in a safe, nurturing and fiscally sound home. If they are allowed to have multiple babies with the help of science, why should they not be able to get married and have the protections it legally affords? Why should they not be recognized as a family?

So far the response has been great! There are the usual trolls on the Internet who don’t like anything and would argue with the wall, but I have received a lot of positive feedback and constructive criticism. I hope to do a few more portraits, particularly of a couple struggling with AIDS, cancer or another severe illness to illustrate the healthcare implications of Amendment One, and an individual whose partner has just passed away after being together for decades. I would like to photograph them at their grave as a bookend to the project. I would also like to photograph some more racially diverse couples but first some would have to volunteer for that to happen.

Beyond the site being an educational tool, my hope is that the images and stories can be a lasting tribute to these families beyond May 8, 2012. I hope they can be celebrated for what they are instead of being scorned for what they are not.”


Editor’s Note: As a disclaimer, Justin and I both graduated from UNC Chapel Hill and worked at The Roanoke Times. I also strongly disagree with Amendment One and will do everything in my power to ensure it is opposed on May 8th. I hope other North Carolinians will join me. When educating myself about the amendment I came across Justin’s work and was astounded by both the quality of work and the intimacy of his stories. To see Justin’s photos from the project, visit CNN’s photo blog.

To see more of Justin’s work, check out his portfolio site and his Facebook page.

To learn more about Amendment One, go to Commitment NC and ProtectNCFamilies.org.

HT: Evelio Contreras.


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