Photographer urges North Carolina to ‘Let Love Reign’ with stunning portraits

On May 9, 2012, Catalina Kulczar-Marin watched through social media as old friends and loved ones posted disheartened Facebook statuses about the midterm elections in North Carolina, sharing their grief over the previous day's passage of Amendment 1, a draconian constitutional amendment that banned same-sex couples in North Carolina from marrying and outlawed any other form of family status, including civil union and domestic partnership.

On the day of the election, Catalina was living in New York, where she still lives today with her husband Juan and works as a portrait photographer. But for twelve years, until 2011, North Carolina was her home, and it was disappointing for her to see so many of her friends and family members be disrespected by the Amendment 1 campaign.

Catalina knew the real impact that a law like Amendment 1 would have on same-sex couples and their families - for several years, she worked with couples intimately as she realized her dream photography project: "Let Love Reign," which captures visual representations of love and commitment between same-sex couples and declares a simple statement: No one should be denied dignity because of who they are or who they love.

Through Let Love Reign, Catalina photographed stunning portraits of seven same-sex couples from North Carolina - and since then, she has moved the project to New York City.

Here, Freedom to Marry caught up with Catalina to talk about Let Love Reign, learn more about how images of the love that same-sex couples share can move public opinion forward, and what she hopes for couples in North Carolina and beyond:

What motivated you to start Let Love Reign?

It was summer of 2009, and at that point we already knew that we were moving to New York to pursue our dreams - photography for me and music for my husband Juan. At that point, Proposition 8 was hot and heavy, and I was reading up a lot about it, and I was very upset about it. I strongly feel that two people, regardless of gender, should be able to be married.

I thought of this amazing couple in Charlotte, Tim and Ron (above), and I had this very quick flash where I saw a portrait of Tim and Ron in black and white - like, a billboard. I said to Juan, 'Oh my god, I have this idea...what do you think?' And he told me to go for it.

"I want to scream out loud through my photography and their words and stories. My fire is being fed just by the sheer unfairness of the subject, and I want to do something about it."

Soon thereafter, I went to see Tim and Ron, who own the store in Charlotte to get the coolest gifts. They represent love, they are the ultimate committed couple - at that point they had been together for 26 years and they had owned the store for 21. I asked if they would be willing to sit for me for a portrait, and I explained that I didn't know where this was going, but that they were my inspiration: They represented what I wanted to show.

I get this passion from Tim and Ron - and the entire issue of marriage inequality. It upsets me that Tim and Ron - since it's not legal in North Carolina and many other states - cannot have the same rights in marriage as Juan and I do - social security, inheritance, hospital visitation, and so many other legal aspects. It infuriates me and it makes me sad, and I want to scream out loud through my photography and their words and stories. My fire is being fed just by the sheer unfairness of the subject, and I want to do something about it.

What was the process like in getting the project in front of people?

Tim and Ron helped me find a few other couples, and everyone volunteered: My fairy godmother and project mentor, Crystal helped me through social media to find a filmmaker, the copywriter, who came up with the name for the project, and the couples. A photographer loaned me his studio, his gear, we had a makeup artist, it was incredible. I photographed seven couples in Charlotte.

By the time the site went up, it was summer of 2010, and we had moved to New York. I applied to a grant, because I wanted this billboard to get out of my head. I applied to the Sappi Fine Papers Grant, asking for $10,000, which allowed me enough for a billboard and a photo exhibit.

The day I got the email notification telling me I got the grant was the day that the Let Love Reign website launched. It was within the hour - and that allowed me to have my first exhibit of Let Love Reign in Charlotte, North Carolina, October 2010.

On opening night of the Let Love Reign photography show, All of the couples were there, and it was one of the best nights of my life. My mom was there - she flew up from Florida - and it was just incredible.

One week before that show, my billboard went up for 30 days - on a heavily trafficked highway, and stayed up for three more weeks. That was my goal, and it happened! 

How has your personal story - and your own marriage - impacted your work with Let Love Reign?

Juan and I met when we were seniors in college. In my school, it was a very small private college, Queens College, and there were three Latinas, so we made a beeline for each other. One of them was a friend of Juan Miguel's, and they grew up together, so she introduced us. We became great, great friends and hung out for almost two years. One day, we were looking at some of my first rolls of film from a photography class, and something happened. It was a crazy week leading up to falling in love over looking at photographs.

 We've been married for eight years now.

We had a very small civil service in one of Juan's aunt's houses, in their living room. My parents and grandparents came up from South Florida.

It was perfect to have the chance to declare that commitment in front of my friends and family. I would love to relive that day - my dad had just beaten cancer for the first time that summer. That Christmas, it was my parents' turn to drive up from South Florida, and since my dad was starting to feel better, Juan and I just looked at each other and said we had to seize the moment. He proposed to me on November 17, and on December 23, we were married. It was perfect.

How has the project changed since you've moved to New York, and what are your plans for the future?

When we moved here, I wanted to continue doing Let Love Reign. So in 2011, that summer, we had another LLR photo shoot. Life happens, so I didn't have another photo shoot until December 2013. But now, I am reinspired and reenergized, and I want to do at least six sessions in 2014- one every other month.

"I want to show that we're all the same: We all love, we all bleed, and we should all have the same rights."

My ultimate goal is to do something like what Andrew Zuckerman did with his book Wisdom - in essence, it's the portrait of the family, along with their story.

With each LLR session, I audio record the couple so that one day, I can transcribe them, and I want to travel the country to each of the 50 states and do this. In my dream world, I earn a grant, rent an airstream camper, and take with me a producer, and a photo assistant, and we drive across country and do portraits in cities across each state.

I want to open people's eyes who might be unwilling to accept this. I want to show that we're all the same: We all love, we all bleed, and we should all have the same rights. I want to make an impression and educate people. 

Learn more about Let Love Reign, and join our campaign Southerners for the Freedom to Marry