Artist documents same-sex military couples in new photo project

On September 20, 2011, the U.S. military ban on open service for gay and lesbian service members, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," was repealed. For the past year, gay and lesbian military personnel have been able to serve openly and honestly without fear of being discharged. 

This fall, Tatjana Plitt, an artist from Australia, is working to document these gay and lesbian service members, who for the first time can publicly express their love and commitment to their husbands, wives, or partners. She's touring much of the East coast from September through December to photograph same-sex military couples, and eventually, she'd like to include a collection of the photos in art galleries or a photo book. Learn more about her project HERE. And check out the photos on this page for some examples of Tatjana's work.

Here, we speak with Tatjana to learn more about her project and hear how we can use art and photography to explore important political and human issues. 

1. What gave you the idea to photograph service members in same-sex relationships?

I strongly oppose any kind of discrimination and inequality in general. But this is also personal for me because my sister is a lesbian (but not in the military) and my uncle was in the military (but not gay), so being touched by both aspects, albeit separately, I wanted to contribute to our cultural understanding of the LGBT community within the military. When DADT was repealed, I knew I wanted to honor and celebrate these courageous individuals and that it would be important to do so as part of the fight to repeal DOMA.

2. Could you talk more about your family ties to the military?

My uncle has been in the military for 26 years and my cousin has been in the Army for 15 years. They have been deployed to Iraq and Afganistan, and seeing what they and their loved ones have had to go through, what they sacrifice, I can't imagine how much more difficult & devastating that would be for same-sex couples who don't have the protections their opposite-sex counterparts have.

3. What's your overall plan for executing the project? 

I would like to photograph as many couples as I can for the series, but a minimum of 30. I'm based in the Washington, D.C. area, but I'm happy to travel around the country whenever I can. When I do travel greater distances, I try to organize a number of couples in that location. For example, I'm going to Ohio the first week of October, and I have three couples lined up to photograph. So if there are any readers out there in Ohio who would like to participate, please get in touch! I give each couple two prints of their picture as a thank you for participating. To raise funds for the final exhibition I will be creating a Kickstarter project, but that won't be until early next year, when I have most of the series completed.

4. What do you hope to do with the photography set you'll have collected at the end of the project?

I hope to create large-scale prints of the images and exhibit them in museums and art galleries around the United States and internationally. I would also like to create a beautiful hard cover book of the collection.

5. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was officially repealed one year ago this week. When you talk to couples to photograph them, have you asked them about what has changed in the past year? What are some common responses? 

The couples I have spoken to have said how accepted and supported they've felt by their colleagues in the military. Their spouses have been warmly welcomed to military events, they no longer have to hide pictures of their spouse when their military colleagues visit their home, they no longer have to hide when saying goodbye when one of them deploys, while deployed they can now email and speak normally over the phone without having to pretend they're merely speaking to a 'friend' or using coded language to communicate 'I love you.'

Although the couples I've spoken to feel a sense of liberation and freedom now that DADT has been repealed, they have all mentioned the inequalities they still face under the Defense of Marriage Act. The fact that the military is under federal law means that even married couples aren't officially recognized. What this means for military couples is that they cannot request to be deployed together if they're both in the military, travel expenses are not covered for the spouse if their partner receives orders to be stationed in a new location, their spouse cannot be covered under the military member's health insurance - and the list goes on and on. As they are in the military, they face great risks on a regular basis and so feel the adverse affects of this discrimatory law much more keenly.

6. What has been your experience when you talk with friends and family members about the project?

I've had some unexpected responses from friends about the project. A few people have said, "Are you trying to get yourself shot?," "You're brave," "Be careful." Some are in jest - but I think it speaks to the fact that there are still highly charged emotions around this issue and that the minority opposed to LGBT community members serving in the military include individuals who sometimes parttake in acts of violence. On the whole, people have been very excited about the project as it comes at a very relevant time and people are keen to see and celebrate the service members who have been hidden for so long.

7. Are they surprised that service members in same-sex relationships still face discrimination?

A number of people I have spoken to are under the impression that since DADT has been repealed, LGBT service members now have equal rights. When I tell them about the impact of DOMA on service members and their families, they are first surprised, then disgusted that people who are putting their lives on the line to serve their country are being treated so unfairly.

8. How can art and photography stimulate cultural and political change?

Art gives us the opportunity to reflect, explore and better understand our shared experience as human beings. Connection creates transformation, and I am hoping these photographs will serve as a point of connection between same-sex couples in the military and the larger community.

Learn more about same-sex military couples and the roadblocks they still face, even a year after the repeal of DADT, by checking out Freedom to Serve, Freedom to Marry, our joint campaign with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network