Recording Equality, Brian Jewell interviews Marilyn Humphries, Bay Windows, 5.17.07

Since the 1980s, photographer Marilyn Humphries has been documenting progressive movements. Her camera has brought Bay Windows readers to the front lines of the fight for LGBT equality from the early days of the AIDS epidemic to the advent of civil marriage rights. The photos of the latter — her award-winning photographs of the struggle for marriage equality in Massachusetts — have been collected in the recently published book Courting Equality from Beacon Press. With a history of the movement written by Patricia A. Gozemba and Karen Kahn to accompany Humphries’s historic photos, the book is a moving and invaluable time capsule. Humphries found some time between the book launch and photo assignments to talk with Bay Windows about sharing her eyes with the world. An excerpt appears below. For the full interview.Q: You must be very busy these days.
A: It’s really nice to have a few moments to just think about things instead of the next task. I feel like ever since November of 2003 I’ve been on the hamster wheel from hell, as so many of us have been. And adding the book on to that was like, how much more can you take?

Q: Covering the Constitutional Conventions must be a real marathon.
A: Yeah, those are pretty grueling. You get there at 7 and they get out at midnight. That’s pretty tough.

Q: How do you get through it?
A: Understanding the importance of what’s happening. And there’s [Bay Windows associate editor] Laura Kiritsy in the background saying, ‘Get up there and get that photo!’

Q: You’ve had a unique view of the marriage fight.
A: It’s an amazing viewpoint. Particularly at the State House. It’s like watching a documentary unfold. Everybody else was on the other side of these roped off areas, singing and jostling for position. It was very intense to watch, and very moving. It’s such a privilege and an honor to be in that position and try to capture it.

Q: Is it hard to cover, when you have a personal stake?
A: Yes, that’s something that’s always been difficult. You try to shoot it like you would anything, getting the visual element that tells the story. I hope I’ve been fairly objective about it, but that’s an elusive thing. In a lot of situations there are some really hard things said. Sometimes directed at me personally, because some of the anti-marriage equality people knew I represented Bay Windows. The closest I came to ever becoming deranged was snapping the guy with the giant sign about sodomy. It’s one of the photos in the book. I was trying to get a picture of him  and he came over and started shoving the sign in my face! I said some things to him I probably shouldn’t have. He was baiting me and I shouldn’t have responded. I think that’s the only time I ever did. You know, you’re exhausted, your nerves are frayed … it’s hard.

Q: What about happier events, like the first marriage licenses? I remember I was at Cambridge City Hall when they had the first registrants for gay marriage licenses, and I was just overwhelmed. I couldn’t imagine having to work, too.
A: That was really hard. First, there was so much going on all over. I got into the chambers and got stuck there. It was too hard to get out. I could hear the crowd outside, and I knew there  was stuff happening all over City Hall. It was such chaos, but it was joyous chaos. When I finally got out, it was unbelievably moving to see all those folks. That was intense and wonderful and I’m so glad I was there.

Q: How did the book come about?
A: I was visiting Pat and Karen, who are dear friends of mine. I was showing some of the photos to them and Evelyn C. White of the San Francisco Chronicle, and she said you have to do a book. I said, I’m not capable of doing that. I don’t have the time, and I don’t know how to do it. And Pat and Karen looked at each other and said, then we’ll do it with you. This never would have happened without them. Trying to make a living as a photographer is so time consuming. Anyway, they led the way. 

Q: Is there another boo coming?
A: I don’t think so! But I am working on a project with the Holter Museum of Art in Montana. They’re doing a show about response to the right wing in general. They asked me to submit a few things to represent the gay and lesbian community. How can you represent that in one or two photos? So the curator suggested I put together a Powerpoint slideshow, which let me use about 400 photos. The curator told me that when she watched it, she wept. It made me realize again what an extraordinary state we live in. So I’m hoping this show will travel around the country.

Q: And hopefully the book will have a ripple effect across the country.
A: That’s what it’s all about for us, that people who have not really looked closely at this issue will look at the book and get accurate information on what went on, and see all those joyous faces. I hope the book will change some people’s perceptions.

Q: How did you get started?
A: In college I majored in history and philosophy. Not very practical, but it instilled a sense of historical perspective. When I moved to Massachusetts, I got involved in some of the early feminist and gay and lesbian efforts. Pat was very involved in those, and she knew how to do photography. She taught me how to use a camera, so we’ve come full circle. My first taste of what it could be like was the protests at Seabrook. I went up there with my little camera and took pictures. And Sojourner — this is full circle again, because Karen would come to edit that paper — published some of them. I thought, ‘Wow, I can take pictures and people will publish them?’ That was all it took. And I love being up close to things out of the ordinary. People are so impassioned, so full of a sense of mission and often in the face of scary stuff. It’s so moving to me, whether it’s an anti-war protest or the trans people lobbying or the fight for marriage equality. I love trying to capture that. Those people are so heroic to me. We’re lucky to have a lot of those people in our community,

Q: And lucky to have someone to record them.
A: It’s a delightful thing to record.
 

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