With dozens of human rights issues being discussed in the U.S. alone (and hundreds spanning the globe), the outreach to make people aware of these issues is a daunting task, let alone getting people involved beyond their computers to click a vote of support. But with Utah being a hotspot for several of those issues within the last ten years alone, its only fitting that one of the biggest, yet simplest human rights campaigns being planned out and undertaken right now would start here in Salt Lake City.
The "I Am Equal" project got its start just two months ago and has taken off in the community like wildfire. Hundreds going in and having their picture taken with a simple phrase temporarily put on their hand for a photograph, all in effort to spread the message that everyone is equal. And while the catalog of faces grow here, plans are in the works to take the project around the world to spread the word. I got a chance to chat with principal photographer and co-founder of the project, Matt Spencer, about his career, the project itself, the coming tour and a few other topics. Along with photos of his work and those who have taken part to show that they are equal.
Gavin: Hey Matt. First off, tell us a bit about yourself.
Matt: That’s always a fun question. Where to start… I’m from Utah originally, but have traveled a lot with my work and continue to discover wonderful new places that capture my heart and imagination. But, with all the places I’ve been, Utah has always felt like home, so I find myself here more often than not. I’ve been blessed to have great friends and family in the area, so, that always makes for a place to call home. For as long as I can recall I’ve had an artistic side. It shows itself in many ways through illustration, graphic design, performing arts and of course photography - my main passion. I love capturing the energy of the moment or creating a stunning visual that tells a unique story. I find my inspiration in a lot of places so I produce a wide variety of work. I do what I love and hope that the viewer finds a connection in whatever I produce.
Gavin: How did you first take an interest in photography and what were your influences growing up?
Matt: I used to love stealing my Mom's camera on family vacations and capturing the beauty I found all around me. For many years wildlife, sunsets, meadows and mountains were my subjects, but as I grew artistically my camera turn to the people and objects that occupied my day to day life.
Gavin: Did you seek out any education for it or was it more self-taught?
Matt: I’m mostly self-taught, a lot of trial and error went into figuring out how to make the camera capture the vision that was in my head. There is a lot of effort that goes into producing even that one photo that resonates with the viewer. I’m always excited to learn new techniques and try new things though, a good education is a continuing one, even if it’s self-taught.
Gavin: How did you officially break into the industry professionally, and what was it like for you starting out?
Matt: I used to be the art director for a local graphics company and my background is in design, but I found myself photographing a lot of products for clients myself because my vision for the final design materials required photos that didn’t exist yet. When I decided I had a greater passion for photography than the other parts of my job, I knew that my next logical step was to take to the camera full-time. It took some patience starting out, building a name for myself and a strong client base. There was a lot of trial and error there, but getting a few regular clients and keeping my name out in the public eye led to bigger and better jobs. Now I have a great base of clients that wouldn’t go anywhere else. It feels great to know that they love my work and come back time and time again for new projects.
Gavin: You've had your photos published in dozens of publications including Women's Health, Travel Host and Seventeen. What has it been like for you to see your work reach that broad of an audience that reaches around the world?
Matt: Seeing my photos published is a great feeling. Even though photographers fight to get credit for our work, most casual viewers don’t pay any attention to who shot that incredible picture, they just love it passively, and that’s okay by me. Seeing my work in print is exciting when I think about the millions of people who are hearing my voice through my work but never seeing my face. I will never know how many people are moved or inspired by the photos I produce so I never think about it. I take pictures that move and inspire me personally, then I release them to the wild and cross my fingers that others will feel the same way.
Gavin: Where did the idea come from to start up SixteenStone Media?
Matt: SixteenStone is a dynamic media company I built to make a complete marketing solution for my clients. A great picture is only the beginning for a strong marketing strategy, so my team is focused on building complete solution for our clients. From print and advertising, to public relations and social media management – we take our client’s vision and expand it in all directions so it touches as many people as possible. SixteenStone is really about maximizing the creative potential of our clients.
Gavin: What was it like for you getting set up and how have things gone for you since opening in 2008?
Matt: Starting any new business is an adventure and there is always that stress of being out there on your own. Before I started, I was working for someone else and, while it was not the best work or pay, it was steady and reliable. So, leaving that stability was a big risk, but I never looked back. I opened my first studio in downtown Salt Lake City and started drumming up business. I used my business contacts and good old fashioned marketing to get my first clients. I built my website and new portfolio and really just pushed to get my work in front of businesses who I knew needed my services. It took a few months but I started getting bigger and bigger local jobs before landing my first national commercial job. It’s been steady growth ever since.
Gavin: When did you meet Jason Beckett and eventually become friends and collaborators?
Matt: Jason was the director of marketing communication for a national coaching and mentoring company. He developed all the new products and services for the company and was looking for a good photographer. He came across my work and started contacting me about projects. We worked back and forth over the phone and internet for three years before finally working one-on-one on a project in Salt Lake City. The client I was supposed to shoot was late so we went to grab a bite at the local Vegan restaurant and that really started our collaboration. We had some time to talk about what we wanted to be doing with our lives and then the ideas started flowing – his marketing really fit well with my artistic abilities. Being in marketing, he gave me some great ideas for expanding my business and targeting international clients, and the rest is history. We’ve been working together ever since.
Gavin: How did the idea come about for "I Am Equal"?
Matt: The "I Am Equal" project came from a sense of frustration in seeing so many people around the world sitting back in apathy, unwilling or unable to stand up and cause something different. There are countless violations of equality and human rights happening around the globe and too many people are just sitting by and watch it happen. As we looked around, we saw that the issues of equality extend far beyond marriage equality and the gay and lesbian community. With child abuse, sex slavery, female genital mutilation, and government repression – the cause of equality is the banner of freedom and it’s time to stand up and make a difference. So, seeing all the causes that exist and all the issues of human rights and equality that are out there, we wanted to come up with a way to inspire and empower individuals to step up and become part of the solution – and the "I Am Equal" project was born. We wanted to give people something simple they could do that would kick-start them into action, and a photo seemed like the logical choice. What could be more simple than taking a picture? When we send them the photo and they share it with their friends and family the real magic in the project happens. When someone shares their "I Am Equal" photo, they are opening the door to have a conversation about the issues that mean the most to them. Their friends see the picture and ask, “What’s that picture? Where did you get it? How do I get one? What does it mean?” And the rest is up to the individual. We find people are having conversations about human rights, equality, and freedom with people they never would have imagined. The photo makes it okay to talk about these vital issues.
Gavin: What was the inspiration behind the logo, and why specifically on the hand?
Matt: The "I Am Equal" logo was designed to be a clear declaration of personal power. When someone says “I Am” they are making a declaration about themselves, even if it’s something as mundane as their name. By adding “Equal” to the statement we are declaring our individual worth and our connection to humanity. The logo uses the equal sign (rather than the word) to bring deeper meaning to the idea. It’s as if the words “I Am” are being double underlined for emphasis. The more people look at the logo, the more they get out of it. We put the logo on the hand as a silent pledge. In a photo, you can’t hear the words of the individual, so the logo on the hand is making the statement for them. Each person is raising their hand and pledging themselves to the cause of equality. Also, universally, the action of offering service is to offer one’s hand – so it was appropriate to put the logo on the hand. Excluding very young children, everyone who takes an "I Am Equal" photo has the logo on their hand as a mark of unity and connection. We are all different, but the banner of equality unites us.
Gavin: How did you decide upon 100,000 photos, and what made you want to take it to a global level?
Matt: I’m setting out to bring awareness to the human rights issues the plague our planet, and break the world record for the largest photo mosaic – using these images to tell a broader story about unity and freedom. In the end, there will be more than 100,000 individual photos put together into one enormous mosaic image. I think it’s fitting that the "I Am Equal" photos are joined together to create one giant image – showing how we are all connected as the family of humanity.
Gavin: The project officially kicked off in June here in SLC. What's the response been like from the public, especially the LGBT community?
Matt: People LOVE being part of this project. It’s a non-confrontational way to express their unique perspective and bring awareness to their cause. In recent history there have been other photo campaigns to shine a light on social issues around the country and the world; but they seem to have a negative or confrontational energy. The "I Am Equal" project is different. Part of what makes people so excited to be involved is that they are not “fighting” for their rights, they are claiming their rights – for themselves, their family, friends, and the world at large. The LGBT community are among the most supportive of the project - expressing their gratitude in emails, Facebook posts and on Twitter . We find that the LGBT community tends to feel like they have no voice in the social debate, especially here in Utah, so this campaign has given many of them permission to open their mouth and speak up.
Gavin: If people wish to have their photo taken for the project, how do they go about doing that?
Matt: We have open photo shoots at our offices in Salt Lake City about once a month (as long as we’re not out on tour) and it’s completely FREE to get a photo. The best way to find out about photo events is to connect with us on Facebook. We keep everyone up to date on the tour, news, and project milestones.
Gavin: You're getting ready to head around the states and other countries. Where will you be headed first, and what's the full plan for the tour?
Matt: From Salt Lake City we’re going to Boise, Las Vegas, Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Sacramento before we head out for our international events. In total, we’ll be visiting 15 cities before the end of 2010 and an additional 25 cities in 2011. We set up a website with all of our tour event information at where people can get the latest news on the locations, times, and dates. All in all, we will be visiting 175 cities for the tour so we can get pictures of individuals from all walks of life and all corners of the globe. We have plans to visit over 100 U.S. cities and more than 50 international cities including Amman, Jordan, Israel, Lagos, Nigeria, Calcutta, India, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and throughout Europe.
Gavin: I understand you're also looking for volunteers. What can people do to sign up for this project?
Matt: The success of this tour is built by our amazing volunteers – people who love the vision and purpose of the "I Am Equal" project and want to be part of making history. Our volunteers work with us in promoting the events by distributing posters and flyers in the city before we get there, and then come and work with us at the two-day events doing registration, crowd control, and participant answering questions. When there is an opportunity to volunteer we tell our Facebook and Twitter followers first, so anyone interested in working with us should be following us there.
Gavin: When you reach the 100,000 photos, will you be doing anything with them or taking "I Am Equal" into another direction?
Matt: I don’t see this project ever ending. I may reach my goal and break the world record for the largest photo essay, but that’s not the point of this project. I want to give EVERY person on this planet an opportunity to have their voice heard. As long as there is someone who wants an "I Am Equal" photo, I will take it.
Gavin: What can we expect from you, the project and SixteenStone over the rest of the year?
Matt: I’ll be taking pictures with the "I Am Equal" project all over the world for the next 7-8 years and juggle that with my regular commercial work. Thankfully, some of my commercial projects coincide with the tour dates and cities, so I’ll be doing a lot of multi-tasking to make sure it all gets done.
Gavin: Aside the obvious, is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Matt: I‘m really proud of the I Am Equal Foundation we established as a global scholarship initiative for at-risk students in our community and around the world. The donations we receive are put towards supporting the incredibly talented students who are living in difficult conditions – kids who might otherwise see their gifts lost to poverty. As we visit each city with the project, people ask us what they can do to support us, and I always tell them the same thing, “go to the foundation website and give generously. Help us change the world by supporting these amazing children.” I’m very proud of the work we do through this project. We inspire and empower people to take action and be part of the solution. There are many ways to make a difference and the I Am Equal Foundation is how we choose to give back to the community. Visit the website and join us in changing the lives of these children.
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