“Being a part of Facebook’s 2018 Pride programming is an honor, to say the least, I had no idea the magnitude of Pride Portraits visibility until now. It is astounding to me that the page of a grassroots organization from the South caught the eye of Facebook which has over 2.19 billion monthly active users.”
A word about the partnership from
Pride Portraits Creator, Eric Edward Schell
The LGBTQIA+ community now has a platform to be visible, represented and humanized like no generation has had before. Facebook has changed the way our community engages with one another. With the single click of a button, our content has the potential to be seen across the globe. LGBTQIA+ celebrities, political leaders, national organizations, grassroots activists and people who simply exist within the spectrum are all connected through this paramount social media platform. Knowing this however did not prepare me for the day I would say, “I can’t believe three years ago I made a Facebook event titled Pride Portraits and today I’m partnering with Facebook.”
Being visible within our community isn’t a privilege everyone has. From elementary school through high school I was the victim of anti-gay bullying and violence. My mental health took the biggest hit and at 17 I found myself hitting rock bottom. I was made to feel ashamed and scared to live authentically. Subsequently my 20’s were spent searching for my identity and the ability to shape my own narrative as a gay man of color who doesn’t adhere to societies norms on masculinity. I spiraled into years of alcohol and substance abuse. At 31 I got sober which allowed me to achieve clarity and find self worth. I eventually found a way to connect to my community, which wasn’t centered on drinking, drugs and sex. Activism.
Activism made me realize that simply existing as a gay man for 30+ years did not automatically give me the knowledge and education of the entire LGBTQIA+ spectrum. I spent a year working alongside people who worked for Equality Texas, Human Rights Campaign and the ACLU educating myself on the many facets of our community and their individual struggles. At the same time using my photography skills to assist in what would be an unprecedented project for Equality Texas, The Texas TransVisible Project.
On June 12, 2016 an anti-LGBTQIA+ terrorist attack at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida left 49 people murdered. This quickly broke me out of the world I had created for myself that was full of inclusion, diversity and tolerance. Globally the LGBTQIA+ community mourned the loss of these individuals and the false sense of hope we had gained the year before when we won marriage equality across all 50 states. For weeks I couldn’t understand why people wanted us dead for simply existing.
The next week I was asked to participate in a video where Houston’s community leaders would be talking about not being afraid to go to our own Pride that year. The setting for the video was a local paint wall with rainbow colors dripping down the wall. I photographed everyone that day that was involved in the video. When I was editing the photos on my computer I realized I had captured the entire LGBTQIA+ spectrum in a matter of hours. I decided to post these photos on my personal Facebook page. The next morning I woke up to an oddly large number of notifications. People were going crazy for these images.
I created a Facebook event and titled it Pride Portraits and stated that I would be at this wall for a specific number of hours doing portraits of people. I didn’t expect anyone to show up. 100 people showed up, mostly strangers who saw the event on Facebook. At the end of three shoots I had acquired roughly 350 photographs. People talked to me while I was photographing them. They would tell me all sorts of fascinating stories. Most of them were about being LGBTQIA+. So I started asking people to write down something about themselves on an index card. I started typing out the responses and including it with their photographs.
At the time Facebook was flooded with media content related to the victims of the Pulse shooting, as well as its survivors. Globally people were using this platform to heal and make sense of this immeasurable loss we all felt. At the same time, people started seeing my photographs of smiling faces with a rainbow paint wall in the background. I had stumbled upon something that was very much needed in that particular moment in our history. I took a few days to assess what my next move would be.
I remembered meeting an artist during one of the shoots. He expressed interest in getting more involved within the LGBTQIA+ community. I decided I wanted a backdrop painted to avoid people standing outside in 100-degree heat. I reached out to the artist via Facebook messenger. We agreed I would commission him to paint a broad representation of the Pride flag. Over the next week he worked on the backdrop. The first time I saw the finished product, I was at a loss for words. He had created a work of art that was exactly what I had envisioned but wasn’t able to express to him in words. I asked the artsit if he wanted to host an event to launch the backdrop. He agreed and the first official Pride Portraits team was born.
The launch was a success. We created an official Pride Portraits Facebook page where I posted our content. The page was soon buzzing with likes, comments and shares.
For the first year I made a very conscious choice to personally not be very visible. This campaign is not about Eric Edward Schell. I wanted to make sure it was clear that Pride Portraits was created to give others a platform to be visible, represented and humanized. Once that was achieved and I started partnering with major organizations like Human Rights, Equality Texas, GLAAD, GLSEN and PFLAG and I knew the campaigns work stood on it’s own, I knew I needed to start being more visible.
We started raising money for our non-profit organization to make sure we had the resources to travel and reach more people. I started speaking about the importance of visibility and being very vocal about trans rights.
To date Pride Portraits has photographed over 3,000 LGBTQIA+ community members and allies. Karamo Brown, Jussie Smollett, Melissa Etheridge, Nancy Pelosi, Alyssa Milano, Lea DeLaria, Aydian Dowling, Congressman John Lewis, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin, Jim Obergefell, PULSE Nightclub Survivor Tony Marrero are just a few of the notable names included among thousands of other people. We have had the honor of partnering with major non-specific LGBTQIA+ orgs like SXSW and NASA.
To be on the phone with Facebook about being a guest at their headquarters and being a part of their 2018 Pride programming has been an honor to say the least. I had no idea the magnitude of reach Pride Portraits had until that very moment. I often wish 17-year-old Eric had seen a campaign like Pride Portraits and known he wasn’t alone and those bullying him could read the stories of people like Eric and realized that LGBTQIA+ people are just people existing in a heteronormative society.