I AM EQUAL Project: Interview with Matt Spencer

Posted November 8, 2011 in
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Participant in the I AM EQUAL Project in Salt Lake City in February, 2011. Photo: Matt Spencer

As far as we’ve come as a civilization, humans are still struggling in every part of the world for equality. No country from first to third world is untouched, and no matter the injustice, it leaves a scar on us all as a species that will infect and spread if left unchecked. Fashion photographer Matt Spencer is not about to let such a sickness continue without a fight. Together with writer/musician Jason Beckett, he has started the I AM EQUAL Photo Campaign Project, which aims not only to empower, educate and open dialogue on some of the hundreds of human rights issues happening right now in every corner of the planet, but also to break a world record by assembling the largest photo mosaic in history. Their tour stops in cities across America, where regular people line up by the hundreds to have their photo taken, and to tell the world their story and what they fight for every day. The I AM EQUAL project will be stopping in Salt Lake City this Wednesday, November 9 at the SLC Photo Collective, and SLUG was fortunate enough to catch up with Mr. Spencer about his unparalleled project in giving voice to the voiceless.

SLUG: What inspired you to become a part of the “I Am Equal” photo project, and can you give us a bit of background on your career outside the project?
SPENCER: I'm a fashion and commercial photographer in my day to day work, which started from being the art director for a Salt Lake print company. When I chose to do photography full time, it was really about following my passion. I AM EQUAL came about with co-creator Jason Beckett. He and I created the I AM EQUAL photo documentary because we are both passionate about human rights and equality. We wanted to give people a tool to engage in those conversations of equality, to educate others and share their own photos as a visual commitment to their own self worth, personal cause or issues.

One really wonderful trait I’ve noticed about all your photos posted online so far is how happy everyone looks. And it’s not fake “smile for the camera” happy, it’s a glowing joy. Is it fair to say this is the mood that permeates most of your shoots for this project?
SPENCER: When people come to an I AM EQUAL photo event there is a fun, joyful energy and it really comes from people connecting with the statement "I AM EQUAL." I know that when I state for myself "I AM EQUAL," I'm taking ownership of my personal worth and that I value myself. When I value myself I can see that value in others, for me it's very joyful. Even the experience of the photos is one of radiating joy, and when people get that message and truly connect with it, they just light up. Say it for yourself, "I AM EQUAL," really own those words for yourself, it's a great feeling.

SLUG: You emphasize that this project is not about any specific, singular cause, but rather all causes that relate to human rights. What cause would you say is the one near and dear to your heart?
SPENCER: I'm really here to support and embrace each participant and honor them for bringing their message to the I AM EQUAL photo documentary. There isn't one issue or cause I'm closer to than another, but if I had to say what's important to me ... I'd say that I want people to recognize that we have so much more in common than we have differences. The first step in equality is choosing to let go of the idea that we are separate from each other and embracing the connection and truth that we are one.

What will be the final result after you’ve collected all these photos and stories?
SPENCER: Once the I AM EQUAL photo documentary tour finishes, we'll then begin the process of building the world's largest photo mosaic. It will be made up of two-inch tiles of all of the photos from our tour. The photo mosaic will be a massive tribute to human rights and equality and represent the passion and commitment to equality of all of the participants. It will then go on tour around the world to continue to educate and engage people in this unifying conversation we call I AM EQUAL.

SLUG: How big is the photo tour, how many cities will be contributing? (And what record will participants be helping to break?)
SPENCER: We're gather more than 100,000 photos to build the world's largest photo mosaic and traveling to about 175 cities around the world collecting photos and photo stories from participants. In the meantime, the photos and stories are shared on our website www.iamequalproject.org for people to see, read and learn.

SLUG: Can you tell me about one photo-story that’s stuck with you?
SPENCER: One?... that's tricky, there are so many. I guess that I'd have to tell you about a young woman from Africa that was passionate about ending female genital mutilation. This was a subject I knew very little about, but what a perfect example of a difficult conversation to start and get others educated and active about. She's told us since getting her photo how grateful she is to have this tool because now all she has to do is share her photo with others and they're asking her what it is about, and then she gets to educate them. That's the beautiful thing about an I AM EQUAL photo, it's a great tool for starting these conversations, educating others or even re-sharing your photo in support of a new cause or issue you become passionate about, the photo will always represent what you're passionate about. Plus, it's a beautiful and unique photo just to have for fun.

SLUG: So, I’m a participant standing in line this Wednesday for your project. What kind of experience can I expect? What do I do with my awesome photo after I receive it in a few weeks?
SPENCER: First, you probably won't be waiting in line, we like to keep things moving quickly and smoothly so as many people as possible can participate. If you do have to wait a minute, you'll be comfortable inside the SLC Photo Collective that's hosting our event, check them out at slcphotocollective.org , they're great. The whole process is quick and easy. You'll register to get a photo, then we place a temporary tattoo on your palm, then you step in front of my camera for a few quick shots. When you get your I AM EQUAL photo in the next few weeks, take that chance to share on Facebook, in emails, in person with friends and family, however you like. Let people know why you chose to participate and what you’re passionate about. Use your photo as a tool to educate, inspire and empower others.

SLUG: For those photo geeks out there, what kind of equipment are you using to set up these shots? Is it a super complex set?
SPENCER: Well, the photo geeks ought to come see the set up and get their own I AM EQUAL photo while they're at it. It's pretty simple actually, a nice two-light set up for easy shooting and portability. I shoot all digital these days and Sony makes some great high-end cameras I've really enjoyed shooting with. I'm currently using the Sony A900 on the project, I love what I get out of it.

SLUG: If folks want to volunteer at your stop in Salt Lake, do you have positions for them? If so, what can they do to sign up and help?
SPENCER: It'd be great to have a few extra hands to assist on the shoot. The best thing to do is go to iamequalproject.org and fill out the volunteer form on the site, that way we know who's available. People can also visit us on www.facebook.com/iamequal and connect with us there. I can't wait to see everyone at our event on Nov. 9 at the SLC Photo Collective.

Don’t miss out on being a part of this record-breaking, life-changing project! Head down to the SLC Photo Collective on 200 S. 561 W. this Wednesday from 3-9 p.m., make some history, and tell the world what you fight for. To find out more about the project, view incredible photo-stories, or find information about volunteering go to the I AM EQUAL Official Website or check them out on Facebook.


Participant in the I AM EQUAL Project in Salt Lake City in February, 2011. Photo: Matt Spencer Participant in the I AM EQUAL Project in Salt Lake City in February, 2011. Photo: Matt Spencer Participant in the I AM EQUAL Project in Salt Lake City in February, 2011. Photo: Matt Spencer