The video-sharing app TikTok has officially been around long enough for its creations to inspire complex art projects — and possibly new callings.
Such is the case for Asheville-based photographer Lauren Merrell’s Strength in Pride Project, which was prompted by a video from Katie Margaret. In it, the New York-based TikTok creator uses an eye pencil to write discriminatory words on her face that have been said to her about being queer. Then in an act of self-acceptance, she wipes off the hateful words and draws celebratory imagery to reflect the shift in attitude.
“It was really interesting and powerful and made me wonder what I could do with it,” Merrell says. “Then I just started brainstorming ideas.”
Both sides now
Merrell saw Strength in Pride as a creative way to explore not just discrimination, but inner dialogue within the LGBTQ+ community — which she notes experiences a lot of internal discrimination as well. Taking a cue from the TikTok video’s transformation, she decided on a two-photo “before and after” presentation.
“People have to see that there’s more to being queer than just those negative pieces,” Merrell says. “So that’s where the positive piece came from.”
She then began having conversations with fellow queer friends about participating in the project. Tiffany Rothstein, owner and lead artist of Brushes and Braids, volunteered to provide hair and makeup services for the shoots and began looping in more models and makeup artists.
Merrell also recruited community members through the Asheville Equality and Queer Asheville Exchange Facebook groups.
“It started off as kind of a self-portrait project where I was going to get a couple people involved, and then it turned into a small group of people, and then it evolved into a 30-day campaign,” Merrell says. “It was no longer something we could do in a weekend.”
As the photographer juggled scheduled shoots in her downtown Studio 15 AVL, she quickly realized funding was necessary to obtain the proper supplies. After looking for recommendations of queer community allies, Merrell contacted Western North Carolina Community Health Services and Bottle Riot; both joined as sponsors to help the project get through its production phase.
“Everyone has a voice and right to express their true self,” say Bottle Riot owners Lauri and Barrett Nichols in a joint statement. “Lauren’s photography is thought-provoking and can be the catalyst for meaningful conversation. We’re honored to be part of this community project.”
The shoots took place over a string of three-day weekends, beginning April 14 and ending May 2, with two additional production days tacked on for participants who had to reschedule. Part of the process involved interviewing each person, which wound up ranging from 15-90 minutes apiece.
In that respectful, nurturing environment, the subjects opened up about their coming-out stories and shared the positive and negative experiences they’d had with relatives, friends and colleagues. The exchanges proved powerful for interviewer and interviewee alike, though Merrell admits she wasn’t prepared for the impact it would have on either party.
“I look at things from that perspective of just trying to create art, and sometimes you don’t realize the emotional connection that comes with that,” she says. “Experiencing it and going through it was probably one of the most momentous things I’ve ever done in my life.”
Merrell wasn’t the only person positively impacted by the project. During the in-between moments when no interviews or photographs occurred, she says people were hanging out, talking and connecting on rare, vulnerable levels.
“This community sprung from this project, where most of these people still keep in touch and hang out and talk and have dinners,” she says. “It became this support system, which is beautiful.”
Every day in June, aka Pride Month, a different Strength in Pride installment was shared on Instagram. The initial, more emotional photo was posted in the morning, followed by its joyful counterpart in the afternoon, both of which consistently attracted numerous supportive comments.
Merrell was originally planning to display the entire series in a single gallery but credits Tina White, executive director of the Blue Ridge Pride Center, with unlocking the project’s full potential. White was brought in as a photo participant, made a personal donation toward the series and suggested that local businesses be recruited as sponsors and exhibitors to encourage larger community involvement and support of the LGBTQ+ community. Sponsorship pays for the printing and framing of a photo set or subseries (e.g. “Love is Love,” featuring couples who participated), which will be outfitted with a QR code that the public can scan with their phones to hear a subject’s story.
Though the Pride Art Walk connecting these businesses was originally slated to run throughout September, the recent rise in COVID-19 infections due to the delta variant has temporarily delayed plans. As of press time, project organizers were looking for additional local businesses to become sponsors. Once full sponsorship is secured and after the future monthlong exhibit concludes, the photos will be auctioned off to benefit local LGBTQ+ nonprofit Youth OUTright.
“We’re also working with a local media company to put together TikTok-style videos to create more content for the project and show some of those transitions that the original TikTok inspired,” Merrell says. “I’ve had conversations with Katie [Margaret], and she’ s been following along the whole time and was really excited to see it all happen.”
Above and beyond
Strength in Pride has additionally caught the attention of allies in larger cities. Merrell and her collaborators have been invited to attend and possibly exhibit at Atlanta Pride in November. Meanwhile, “some pretty interesting people [are] asking us to come to Nashville and do a project there,” Merrell notes.
The artist has also received plentiful messages from people saying that the project empowered them to come out to their families, work through their trauma with a therapist and otherwise embrace their true selves.
Through these and other experiences stemming from the project, Merrell feels that stigmas within the LGBTQ+ community are being shattered, and a platform is being given to people who rarely receive such an opportunity. In turn, she can’t see the project being limited merely to Pride Month.
“Once I did this, it made me not want to do anything else,” Merrell says. “I’ve gained this passion for helping people tell their stories and creating art from that. It’s a very personal experience.”