One Love: LGBT Families Exhibit Debuts at the Valentine Richmond History Center
By, Yasir Afzal
The Valentine Richmond History Center (the Valentine) recently opened a new exhibit called One Love: LGBT Families. According to the Valentine’s website, “This exhibition questions the traditional definition of a family through portraits of LGBT families in the Richmond region. Presented in collaboration with Richmond Region Tourism’s OutRVA campaign and photographer Michael Simon.” The exhibit is sponsored by Altria Group, Capital One, Virginia is for Lovers, Diversity Richmond, Q94 and Pride Radio. This remarkable exhibit is composed of portraits of gay, lesbian, transgender, polyamorous and other combinations of people that express the understated beauty and diversity of the families that populate central Virginia.
The idea for One Love: LGBT Families was conceived by Richmond photographer Michael Simon, Katherine O’Donnell of Richmond Region Tourism, and Domenick Casuccio, the Director of Public Relations and Marketing at the Valentine. The concept began to take shape when in 2014, Richmond Region Tourism, via its OutRVA campaign, decided to draw attention to the Richmond region as a romantic haven for LGBT weddings by offering a promotional same-sex wedding giveaway. During a radio interview on Diversity Speaks, Simon and Casuccio were discussing the wedding giveaway. The two began musing on the idea of a creating a photo series to accompany the museum’s It’s All Relative exhibit, which houses a photo series of Richmond families throughout its history, that would feature LGBT families. “We were discussing the upcoming Richmond tourism campaign and they really wanted to focus on families and attract LGBT families to travel to Richmond. Michael was going to be taking photographs for that campaign and I said, ‘We have an empty gallery downstairs and a family exhibit upstairs. Would it be possible for us to collaborate on an exhibition since you’ll be doing the imagery anyway?’” That’s when Meg Hughes stepped in. Hughes curated the It’s All Relative exhibit and had worked on a variety of similar collaborations with local photographers in the past on different subjects.
The exhibit came together in about six months. During that time, recruiting families for the exhibit was vital. As Hughes and I walked along the downstairs gallery of the Valentine admiring the photos from the One Love: LGBT Families exhibit, she explained, “We did an online recruitment effort in the fall and had more than 50 families express an interest and we selected 20 to be featured.”
One of the most interesting facts about the photos is the sheer amount of diversity amongst the chosen families. Hughes noted, “We were really trying to show diversity on every sort of level you can think of.” This includes locality—the families selected represent every county of the region and also show every configuration of a what a “family” is that you can think of. Each family has their own unique story that shines through in each of the photographs. Lingering on this sentiment, Hughes elaborated, “Everybody has families. Everybody has struggles and things that they’re proud of and inner dynamic squabbles. It’s universal and we couldn’t have done this without having people wanting to share their faces and stories with us and everyone else in the world.”
Hughes was right. Walking along the rows of photographs I could feel the love radiating from the portraits. Simon didn’t just manage to capture the beauty of the families; but, he also captured the essence love, which is something difficult for any photographer to do. These aren’t your typical American gothic style family portraits either. Each has its own story and dynamic.
Simon’s talent as a photographer and love of people are evident within the pictures, as well. “I’m always interested in people, period. And as a photographer, I’ve always focused on people. I came to Richmond in 2014 from New York where I photographed a lot of same-sex weddings.” His first break in Richmond came when OutRVA brought him in to photograph the wedding of the winners of their same-sex wedding give-away. How did he land that gig? “It was pure luck, just pure luck that I got the job,” he says taking a sip of his coffee in the middle of Urban Farmhouse in Scotts Addition.
After the success of OutRVA’s 2014 wedding give-away, O’Donnell approached Simon to work with Richmond Region Tourism again on a project to help increase tourism amongst LGBT families. It was at that moment that the concept behind the One Love: LGBT Families exhibit really started coming together. Simon had some doubts in the beginning, though. “I was nervous. Were we going to get a ton of applications? Or would we get six applications? We really didn’t know. Then we got 50, which I thought was fantastic!”
Of all the portraits in the exhibit, one of my personal favorites is a beautiful lesbian couple with their two children. The older of the two kids could barely sit still during the shoot. To keep the kid in one place for the shot, Simon grabbed one mother’s blue dress and popped it in the kid’s mouth. It’s these little quirks that make the photos relatable. In some way, you can identify with every single family featured in the exhibit. The personable and idiosyncratic elements in each of the photographs are what Simon and Hughes hope make the exhibit both enjoyable and memorable for visitors. They hope that people walk out of the exhibit seeing that families come in all different shapes and sizes. At the end of the day, all that matters is the love shared between everyone.
One Love: LGBT Families is a beautiful addition to the Valentine, to the greater Richmond region and, indeed, to Virginia. What better way to celebrate love and diversity than giving these families the opportunity to shine!
The One Love: LGBT Families exhibit runs from December 1, 2016 through September 4, 2017. An opening reception for the exhibit was held on January 11, 2017.