Spotlight on Catalina Kulczar
Aug 6, 2015
TID: Catalina, great to have you join TID. Can you give us some background to your on going project Let Love Reign and then specifically this image you shot in support of equal rights for all to marry?
Catalina: It all started back in 2009, when Proposition 8 was being challenged in California. I had been reading up on the issue and felt really upset that people, in this forward-thinking country in so many aspects, had to fight for marriage equality.
One summer afternoon, when I still lived in North Carolina (we moved to NYC that fall), I felt compelled to contribute to the fight for marriage equality. I envisioned a black and white portrait of Tim + Ron (more on them soon), and the idea of creating a photography project featuring same-gender couples to show that love is love, and that two people, regardless of gender, should have equal rights in marriage in the United States was born.
I blurted the idea quickly to Juan Miguel, my eternal-slumber-party-mate, and he said "go for it."
Tim and Ron are a beautiful couple who also own and run a popular store in Charlotte, called Paper Skyscraper. It's the best place in town for uniquely crafted gifts, and I frequently shopped there.
Soon after having this "aha" moment, I asked Tim if he would have coffee with me.
I told him about this project (unnamed at the time), I shared how I felt that Tim and Ron encapsulated what this project was about, and soon thereafter, they agreed to be photographed.
For a project of this nature, I felt I needed a mentor, a fairy godmother, to help guide me, connect with others who might be interested, and generally someone to support the project. This person was Crystal Dempsey, a woman who used to be my boss when I did freelance fashion photography work for her at The Charlotte Observer. Crystal was freelancing when I approached her about Let Love Reign and she jumped at the chance to help me right away.
Catalina: I was new to twitter back in 2009 and through that medium, I found the person who came up with the name for the project (@jimmitchem), the woman who documented video interviews and making-of (@docudramaqueen), and recruited some couples also via twitter.
My friend Jon Aaron designed the first version of the website, and my husband, Juan Miguel, designed the identity for the project.
Michael Caroll, an amazing commercial photographer in Charlotte with a heart of gold, donated his studio space and his gear on two separate occasions.
TID: Why did you decide to work on this project and then specifically why as a portrait series?
Catalina: I decided to work on this project because I had to take action. I couldn't just sit and watch the fight for marriage equality from the sidelines. I felt that this was my little nugget of help for the greater cause. I felt that, as an artist whose focus is capturing portraits, I could put a face to the issue. To show those who might otherwise turn away, that love is love and that it really doesn't matter if it's two men or two women. It was my calling.
TID: You started this project in North Carolina. How has the reaction to the project been the same or different as you have worked on this project now in several other states?
Catalina: I have created portraits to date with couples from New York, North Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, New Jersey, Arkansas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and California. The reaction has been different in each state, because in some places, marriage equality had been achieved at the time I made the portraits, whereas in other states, that was not the law yet.
Many couples, especially in Texas (summer 2014), felt that theirs would be the last state to achieve marriage equality. Their mood was somber regarding the subject, but hopeful at the same time. The reaction in California - specifically San Francisco, was one of gratitude and it was truly remarkable to meet two of the couples whose marriages were annulled back in 2004 - they were a part of marriage equality history in the making, and their stories were truly humbling.
TID: How did that make you feel or shape how you decided to approach your work in these situations as you moved forward with the project?
Catalina: The overall feeling from the couples towards my project has been that of gratitude. There's also been a bit of surprise when they find out that I'm a straight ally for marriage equality.
My feelings each session vary greatly because I feel what the couple shares with me. Some couples have had a really tough road to stand as a couple. Some couples were welcomed as such with open arms by their family members. Others were shunned by their families for being gay. In some cases, some women divorced their male couples after understanding that they had feelings for a woman and in an act of revenge, their ex-husbands outed them to the family. Some people lost parents decades ago - and these parents never accepted their sexuality. Each couple has a unique trajectory and I experience the emotions with them quite deeply.
But at every single Let Love Reign session, I always feel joy.
Sheer happiness to meet loving couples and humbled and honored to interview them, hear their stories, and capture their love through my camera and my heart. Each portrait shows that connection, that trust in me, and above all else, their love for each other.
TID: Tell us what led up to the moment when you took the frame here and what was going on in your mind at the time?
Catalina: The first couple I ever photographed for Let Love Reign was Tim and Ron.
They are a true example of a loving, committed couple. They have been together for 30+ years, They've had their store for over 25 years. They are a regular couple, just like me and Juan Miguel, but in the eyes of the laws of the USA (at that time), they couldn't marry and have the same rights that Juan MIguel and I have. It was infuriating to me. Complete bullshit.
As we were taking photos, I asked them how they felt about marriage inequality. I asked how they would feel if the other spouse was in a hospital and they were denied visitations, a problem that some same-gender couples had unless they have all necessary legal documentation to show the hospital. The emotions show in these images. From playful and fun, to the thought of losing the other spouse.
That's where we were when I made THE image that has come to represent Let Love Reign. I had asked them how would they feel if today was the last day they saw their spouse.
TID: How did you make your subjects feel comfortable? How do you connect with your subjects to pull their personalities out.- show their love and connection between the subjects?
Catalina: I have a very energetic, warm, bubbly and open personality, which makes my subjects feel comfortable with me. I like to engage them in conversation so they can relax in front of my lens. I ask them personal questions. It's great to hear stories of how they met. They love to share that with me and it relaxes them. I think there's also an intangible part of my personality that puts people at ease. I can't describe it but it's there. Maybe it's love!
TID: What were some problems or challenges you encountered during the shoot and how did you handle them?
Catalina: As I write this interview, my biggest challenge to date has been to get the word out more quickly about Let Love Reign, and find couples to represent more states.
However, now that marriage equality has been achieved in ALL 50 states, I have decided to take a long, hard look at my initial goal (photograph couples that represent each of the 50 states), and reconfigure what Let Love Reign means and looks like post-marriage equality achievement.
After hours of soul-searching and figuring out next steps, I have decided to focus on the stories and portraits of couples I already have - which add up to 55 couples - and move onto Phase 2 of Let Love Reign, which is to find a book publisher. From the very start of this project 6 years ago, my goal has always been to create a beautiful book to share my couple's stories and portraits. People need to see these couples, people need to read their stories of love, struggle, discrimination, hope and ultimate joy in reaching marriage equality in the USA.
Time to make a book and share it with the world!
TID: What surprised you about the experience? What lessons did you learn from making this image?
Catalina: What surprises me most about this experience are the stories that couples share with me - from how they met, to their coming out stories, to what they have endured to become the couple that they are today - the common thread with all of them being that these men and women are being true to themselves, no matter how difficult things may have been in their lives. These couples persevere and just as I see them for who they are, they do too - they're two people who love each other.
Simple as that.
TID: When working in other cities, other than NYC where you are based, how do you prepare and find subjects? How have you felt mentally when gearing up for a new location shoot?
Catalina: That's a great question. Each state varies. Texas, for example, I visited because a woman who saw an interview about LLR on Freedom To Marry's website reached out to me and offered to help find couples for me to photograph. In essence, she became a Let Love Reign Ambassador. I arrived with my gear and Lauren opened up her living room, scheduled all 7 couples for me to interview and photograph, and she even opened up her home, where I stayed both nights I was in Houston.
Same thing happened in Oklahoma City.
For other cities, I have reached out to friends and used my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/letlovereignnow) as a way to find couples.
Overall, Freedom To Marry has been a HUGE help in finding couples - they have been avid supporters of my project for the past year and a half, and when they write on their Facebook page that I need couples, my inbox is pleasantly overwhelmed with willing participants.
Catalina: Mentally, I feel genuinely excited when I visit a city for Let Love Reign.
I can't wait for the day to start - by that point, I have been emailing with the couples for weeks ahead of the shoot, so I feel I know them well before I arrive in each city. I am so excited when they arrive to the session that I hug them right away! I'm a hugger.
It dawned on me last year that so many couples visit NYC, so I created a form that they can fill out if they want to have a LLR session at my studio while in the city. www.letlovereign.org/participate - and that's been a great way to meet and photograph couples from all over the USA.
TID: Did you have plans when you started this project for what you would like to do with the work? Are they the same now or different? How did you mentally/emotional arrive at these goals?
Catalina: The minute I dreamt of Let Love Reign, I knew I wanted to make a book about the project. My inspiration is Andrew Zuckerman's beautiful portrait/quote book, Wisdom.
I see my images in a large-sized book on one side, along with the couple's story on the other side. I see a beautiful coffee table book that's inspiring to anyone who reads it and sees the portraits of each couple.
After meeting Andrew Zuckerman backstage at the 2011 Behance Conference in NYC, the book idea was cemented in my mind. I thought to myself, if Andrew can do this, so can I!
The challenge I feel right now is how to pitch a book, find an agent, and find the right publisher.
I've never done something like this before.
TID: You are doing interviews and video with this project. How do you see them used with the still images?
Catalina: I am doing portraits and audio interviews - I started with videos because I had help back in Charlotte. In New York, working on this project alone, I found it best to do audio interviews (not video) of the couples to best capture their stories.
Before creating the portraits, I sit down with each couple and ask them the same 4-5 questions, record our interview and have the work transcribed. A former client-now-friend, Jerllin, takes the interviews and writes the stories that you can read at www.letlovereign.org/blog - she is an incredible writer and suggested that I populate content online, so when the time comes for a book pitch, I already have all this content to support the book. Jerllin is a godsend and does justice to every single story. I am extremely lucky to have her on the Let Love Reign team.
TID: In conclusion, what advice do you have for photographers working on long term projects? Can you share some advice to others who may feel stuck or lack of focus during a long-term project?
Catalina: My initial goal was to represent one couple from each state, but thankfully marriage equality was finally reached in June of this year, so I have to shift gears much earlier than anticipated.
I am pleased that the work I've been doing for 6 years is one little grain of sand in the fight that we finally won and now it's time to make a book and share with the world the stories of my 50+ Let Love Reign couples.
Patience, resilience and persistence are my best pieces of advice for anyone that wants to see a project through, ESPECIALLY when it's a long-term project like this. Six years in, I am still very much in the thick of it and sometimes get discouraged. But then I think of all the amazing couples that I have met, who have given me not only their time but their trust in sharing their stories with me, and then I feel once again refueled to keep going!
Ask for help. That's another great piece of advice. DON'T BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR HELP. Each time I asked Freedom to Marry to help, they were there, ready to post about Let Love Reign and they helped me find many couples.
Remember, I am doing this project on the side, while taking on paid gigs that in turn help me continue doing Let Love Reign and paying the bills.
This project - as many personal projects - takes a lot of time, patience and effort.
I've also learned that it's OK to step back and take a break from a project. I know I did - I took a break mostly because I was getting settled in NYC and needed to find paying work so I could continue with Let Love Reign - my passion project and you know what? That was OK because once I got back into the LLR groove, I felt refreshed and energized to keep going and I still do.
Now with my next goal, which is to find a book publisher and make a beautiful, powerful and touching book that features my Let Love Reign couples, I feel excitement and a renewed sense of purpose in a post-marriage-equality era in the United States.
Catalina Kulczar is a Hungarian portrait photographer based in New York. But she doesn't mind to travel all over. Good thing she speaks five languages. And when none of them is spoken, her laughter works almost as well.
She's photographed David Byrne, Milton Glaser, James Victore, Sebastian Cordero, Shantell Martin, Debbie Millman, Tina Roth-Eisenberg. Most recently, Catalina has also photographed campaigns for Casper (mattresses), Krylon Paint, Prudential Insurance, Contemporary Color (with David Byrne), Warby Parker, among others.
Her work has been published in the New York Times, Communication Arts, Departures Magazine, Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), Time Out, The Great Discontent and The Economist.
When she's not shooting stills, you can find Catalina filming and directing videos for clients including Milton Glaser, Craig Ward, Wacom, and music videos for Brooklyn-based dance band LEGS.
Twitter + Instagram: @catalinaphotog