“It’s so weird to have lived one year financially free, all around the world, after living a while in New York, and to now be at home with my mom in Portland,” says a 33-year-old Kevin Truong (@kevkevtruong). “I’m saving enough money to move back to New York, but this has been quite an adjustment.” In July 2015, Kevin completed a one-year, Kickstarter-funded trip around the globe for his docu-photo-series The Gay Men Project, on which he visited 32 countries and 66 cities. (He had already photographed men in 20 other major cities, in five countries.) After that trip, his tally of gay male subjects—each photographed in a very approachable, non-threatening, usually-fully-clothed manner—is 700 strong. I met Kevin through the project; he photographed me in late 2012 when TGMP was still part of his senior thesis at Pratt Institute. I wrote an accommodating personal essay (because he asks each subject to write a reflective piece to complement the images), and it remains a wonderful time capsule of how I saw the brooding gay world at age 26, just two years out of the closet and fresh to New York. My friend Thom (@steadisdead) referred me to Kevin, who had put out a call for subjects to his pals; like everyone else who got involved, I then gave Kevin a list of my own friends I thought he should feature, whether in New York or elsewhere. This is how the endeavor has snowballed: Word of mouth has created a huge network, a portfolio of global gay voices, and has thus taken over Kevin’s entire life for the better part of four years. Despite his living at home in Portland—for now—it has made Kevin one of my most actualized, wise, and—of course—worldly friends.
Like me, Kevin got his professional foundation with the AmeriCorps VISTA program; that’s “Volunteers in Service to America”, a 12-month non-profit management assignment, in which workers receive poverty-level wages and earn an education/loan stipend. Kevin’s LA-based term focused on improving literacy, particularly in Orange County’s children’s hospitals. He stuck with non-profit for four more years in Portland, OR—his hometown—running after-school programs for at-risk youth. “My life was going down a certain path,” Kevin says. “So I decided to try the biggest service endeavor: Peace Corps.” He was placed in Belize, an extremely impoverished country where it is illegal to be gay. “I asked to get re-placed, and they were understanding, but explained that many Peace Corps placement countries have anti-gay laws. A lot of them were colonial and might not necessarily enforce said laws, so I felt safe enough to at least give it a try.” Two months in, Kevin was the eighth person to leave (from an initial group of 30; only half lasted a full two years). “The Peace Corps is clear that they want you to leave if you are unhappy and feel the need to do so. On the one hand, I was adjusting to living in a developing country. But mostly, I hated having to hide that I was gay, especially in fear. I had only just finally fully come out to everyone back home after a long, labored process, so to hide it for another two years felt impossible. At one point, I just broke down and bawled. I totally lost it. I was afraid to tell my amazing host family that I was gay, because I convinced myself that the laws were reflective of the general culture and ideologies. I felt like the biggest failure when I left, but I also felt lucky to be able to leave. I imagine that many gay people there have to just deal with it, hide it. I can at least see why the experience led me to doing this documentary project, to travel all over and meet these people, to share their point of view.”
Kevin, then 27, found himself back home with no plans, because he had originally intended to be gone for two years. He wanted to do something drastically different—something creative—so he applied to three art schools in New York (to get a second bachelor’s degree), and wound up enrolling in Pratt’s photography program. In his second year, he had an assignment that required him to photograph just one kind of subject for two months. He was feeling inspired by Catherine Opie’s series “Domestic”, which showcases lesbians posing around their homes; it’s very modest and voyeuristic. Kevin photographed 10 subjects and then gave each man the opportunity to supplement the image with his own narrative. “It was never high-concept,” Kevin explains. “That’s the point: me wanting it to feel like you could be beside them in the room, then give each the chance to share his point of view. It felt like the perfect way to marry photography with the socially conscious components of nonprofit work.” He kept the project up in his free time, and started building a network of subjects via friends. He flew to the West Coast to shoot guys in Portland and San Francisco, then to Panama, then London and Paris—now it was “international”—always crashing with friends to make things affordable. A Buzzfeed feature brought him a truly global audience, and he started receiving emails from admirers all around the world. Then, in January 2014, after college: “I was freelancing but also broke. Part of it wasn’t my fault; I had some payments from clients coming it, but there was one moment where I had less than $40 in my name. I had just paid rent and needed to do laundry but couldn’t withdraw the $20, because then my utility check wouldn’t be cleared and they might’ve shut down everything. I wanted to keep shooting, keeping growing, but the project was costing so much money and not paying for itself in the least.” So, he threw a Hail Mary and launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a worldwide trek, to build a culturally diverse catalog; should it get funded, he would know it was worth continuing, worth every penniless strain.
“I made so many budgets, and a huge list of every person I knew, and estimated how much I thought I could raise and how much I needed to raise,” Kevin says of his pre-Kickstarter launch plans. “I estimated needing 35K, but was only sure I could raise 25, so I landed in the middle and shot for 30.” As I’ve mentioned before, Kickstarter has an all-or-nothing policy; your endeavor must be fully funded at the end of your 30-day window, otherwise nobody is charged a dime. “The scary thing for me was that I was using it as a way to validate what I was doing,” Kevin explains. “It’s very personal as a creator to throw it out to the world. The people who comment on the Gay Men Project site—the ones who would let me know that I was reaching them—it wasn’t entirely clear if they were showing up with their dollars. So I just had to trust that other people wanted to support it and get a collective thumbs up or thumbs down from the public.” The campaign got a lot of press from LGBTQ outlets right away, but the momentum quickly slowed down. Luckily, though, a few more generalized news outlets picked it up, and the traction stayed steady. “That felt especially validating,” he says. “To see it coming from non-LGBTQ sources. Also, a few classmates from high school—who if I recall correctly, teased me for being gay—they donated to the project. It wasn’t guilt money or anything. It was just cool to see how some people change as they grow, that they would put their own money into my hands to do this thing.” Kevin’s efforts would cap at 33K, giving him a green light for the global excursion. Now, Kevin had to actually plan said excursion—and rally subjects at every stop—while relying on the same word of mouth to carry him along.
“I just looked at a map and started doing groundwork of where I knew people I could stay with,” Kevin says. It was important to him to go to places that were culturally different from the mostly affluent cities he had already logged. High on his list were Kenya, Cambodia, Indonesia. “It was half being practical and economical—could I crash on a friend-of-a-friend’s couch?—and half going to places I felt like I needed to go.” He had to plan out the first half (in South America) more diligently, because flights aren’t as cheap on a whim. In many other parts of the world (Asia, primarily), that’s not the case, so it allowed him to travel on less notice. When he wasn’t staying with friends or extensions of, Kevin was sourcing local nonprofits for contacts, for any leads, and the same went with finding subjects to shoot; he would often just trust that it would come together once he was on the ground in each respective place. “I would check #gaypride on Instagram in places like Cape Town and reach out to potential subjects that way,” he says. “I would even find people through channels like Grindr and Scruff and Tinder, always linking to the site and making sure it was perceived as genuine, not creepy.” Through all of this outreach and word of mouth, Kevin would photograph such notables as Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of India; Carlos Bruce, a gay congressman in Peru; and Michael Kirby, Former Justice of Australia’s High Court. This whole web of gay men just formed for him, and now he has over 700 friends around the world who have invested in him their wisdom and anecdotes. One personal story I love to tell people: When my friend Zach (@zachames) and I went to Buenos Aires in late 2014, we asked Kevin to introduce us to a couple guys who might take us out dancing or give us some local advice. We missed Kevin by just a week there, but he connected us with his friend Nico; he met Nico through his outreach and also stayed with him while visiting. As it would turn out, Nico’s apartment was in our Airbnb’s building, on the same floor, staring directly into our own kitchen…small world! “That,” Kevin says, “is the six gay degrees of Kevin Truong at its finest.”
We’ve all said and heard cliches about the world being small, and especially in New York City, and even more so in a niche community within that city, like gay men,” says Kevin. “But to rely on that fact, and to experience firsthand how interconnected we are—particularly within such a niche group—was proof of how small the world is. It quickly felt very manageable, since one day I was in South America, then off to Africa the next, and into the Middle East soon after.” Even then, Kevin was meeting with people who were likeminded, who share his core beliefs and who largely see the world the same as him, regardless of nationality. He cites social media for the fact that we can now so easily connect with people who share our point of view, despite the miles between us; there are few taboos about befriending strangers online, or meeting a significant other in the same manner; I would go on three dates a year if I couldn’t fall back on these apps. But even then, it speeds up the likelihood that our world starts folding atop itself, especially in a singular place like New York, or even New Haven. “And look,” Kevin says. “You also realized through an app that these two men had met and were staying acquainted. Social media brings people into your life, creating opportunity and connecting you with people it might be impossible to meet otherwise. Then, on the other hand, it poisons your brain, even if it’s showing you the truth. It has the power to both connect and destroy us. It shrinks the world down even further; this is equally wonderful and terrifying.”
The Gay Men Project might be nearing an end. “I either need to take it to a new, innovative place, or find a way to tie it all together,” Kevin says. “Plus, I’m 33 now; it’s the age where lawyers have come into their own and are running practices. Finance people have had crazy promotions and own multiple homes. All my friends are doing those things and I’ve just moved back with my mom to start saving money again, just so I can move back to New York and do the starving photographer thing again.” He’s not tired of the project, but he is tired of doing it for no profit—and often times at his own cost. He plans to pursue freelance when he’s back in NYC, relying largely on his body of work to get jobs that actually pay. And of that catalog, I find it so admirable that it’s gotten as huge and eclectic as it is without Kevin cutting any corners; I think he was smart to keep it no-frills, to be nimble and low to the ground with it so that he wouldn’t get lost in hours of re-touching images and editing essays. While he may be broke, he is now rich with years of travels, with seven hundred new friends, with added perspectives and experiences that a very small fraction of the world will ever get to emulate. He speaks with such confidence, even when addressing his uncertainty, because he knows more than anything how to survive in this world, how to earn trust and turn strangers into companions. He actively makes his world smaller, not by shutting it off and being provincial, but by pulling everything close, accepting each perspective, and embracing the variety.