The NOH8 campaign – of photos of celebrities and ordinary people with duct tape over their mouths – began in November 2008. It started as a response to the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which rewrote the state’s constitution and defined marriage as being only between a man and a woman. I met up with co-founders Adam Bouska and Jeff Parshley to talk about how the NOH8 campaign developed.
Prior to the passage of Prop 8, Adam and Jeff were a fairly apolitical young couple living in West Hollywood. Adam, an up and coming photographer, met Jeff, then a bar manager, when Jeff was considering producing a staff calendar for charity.
“It was Christmas 2007 and nobody was in town so we started hanging out a bit,” says Jeff. “We spent three months together working on the calendar.”
They had been dating for about six months when California’s Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage in a 4-3 vote. Marriage wasn’t something they were then considering but Adam describes hearing the ruling via social media: “It was an amazing time. It felt like it just came out of nowhere.”
Not everyone was pleased. A movement formed to ban same-sex marriage in the state through a constitutional amendment. It secured sufficient support to be put to a vote the same day as the 2008 presidential election.
“I remember there was a lot of buzz in the media, but everyone seemed confident it wouldn’t get passed,” Adam comments. “Different polls showed the result going different ways. In the end it passed by a very small margin.”
While America celebrated Obama’s victory and the election of its first black president, there was unrest in San Francisco and Los Angeles where, contrary to what the news anchors were saying, it didn’t feel like such a great day for America’s civil rights movement.
“Once it passed it struck a chord with us,” says Adam. “It was a big eye-opening moment for us to look to ourselves and see what we could do to get involved. I started blogging about the issue and we took to the streets. After one protest we were back at our apartment, which at the time was also my studio, and Jeff said he wanted to take a photo. It was 4am.”
“A lot of people called Proposition 8, Proposition H8,” Jeff tells me. “When it passed people started replacing their Facebook profile picture with a poster that said: ‘I’m a victim of H8’. We liked the message, but the problem was you couldn’t see who the person was: they were faceless victims. So we came up with the NOH8 photo to show the faces of the people being discriminated against and their supporters.”
The photo Adam took of Jeff that that night was the very first NOH8 photo. That the 14,000-odd photos that followed retain its aesthetic is credit to the design they created that night.
“Afterwards we invited our close friends to come and get similar photos done,” says Jeff. “When they showed those photos to their friends, their friends wanted a photo too. It sort of grew from there. For the first five to six months we funded everything ourselves and we got to about 300 photos.”
Then the Miss USA 2009 pageant happened. When Carrie Prejean stood on stage and told Perez Hilton she believed “marriage should be between a man and a woman”, she effectively condoned Proposition 8. Afterwards Adam contacted Shanna Moakler, a former Miss USA who had blogged her opposition to Prejean’s views, and arranged for Moakler to have a NOH8 photo taken.
“Shanna’s photo was big news and got a lot of press,” says Adam. “Soon after lots of other celebrities wanted to get involved too. The project became a campaign and we decided to register as a non-profit organisation.”
NOH8 photos were now appearing not just on Facebook, but in a multitude of online and print media, spreading the NOH8 message across the country and further afield.
“Early on we encouraged people to personalise their photos,” says Jeff. “When the battle to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was being fought, Dan Choi and Victor Fahrenbach had NOH8 photos taken wearing dog tags to show their support for repeal. The NOH8 campaign slowly widened to become a message of tolerance and equality for all.”
Realising that Adam couldn’t photograph everyone who wanted a NOH8 photo they told people how to take their own NOH8 photos and upload them to the campaign’s website. When funding became an issue they introduced a notional charge for the photos Bouska took, enabling the organisation to grow further.
“Right now we’re working on a free app so that people can take a NOH8 photo using their iPhone,” says Adam. “Looking ahead I think NOH8 can innovate to grow outside of just being a photo campaign. So many people have come to us with songs they think capture our message that we’re thinking about producing a NOH8 CD.”
With campaign highlights including NOH8 shoots for Cindy and Megan McCain, shooting Jane Lynch on the set of Glee and Lindsay Lohan at home under house arrest, I ask them both to pick a personal highlight.
“For me it doesn’t involve a celebrity,” Jeff begins. “We did a shoot at my high school back in New Hampshire during the Thanksgiving holiday. We shot in the cafeteria. My gym teacher was there and did a photo and the janitor did a photo too. A lot of my friends and classmates showed up. I was never out at school so having people photographed for the campaign there and them meeting Adam was really special.”
“One of my favourite moments was shooting David LaChappelle on his birthday in his studio,” says Adam. “He invited all his close friends and crew to be a part of the photo. He told Jeff while we were there that he’d never had another photographer shoot inside his studio before. That was pretty cool.”
With the NOH8 campaign going from strength to strength I ask how things are between them. At the time of writing they’ve been together for three and a half years. During that time same-sex marriage in California has been in turn illegal, legal and for the moment remains illegal again. If marriage equality returned to California is it something they would consider?
“Jeff actually proposed to me during one of our anniversary parties for the NOH8 campaign,” Adam tells me. “Obviously I said yes.”
“We always tell people that we didn’t start the NOH8 campaign because we wanted to get married,” Jeff adds. “We started the campaign because the option wasn’t there. It’s still not, but even when marriage equality returns to California, the NOH8 campaign will continue because it’s now about achieving equality for everyone.”