As a Mexican-American and a gay man, Raleigh photographer Jose Chavira knows what it’s like to be stereotyped.
“I grew up in rural North Carolina, and it’s not the most liberal place to grow up,” he said. “I’ve had my fair share of bigotry thrown at me.”
That’s why with his latest project, Complify, he is asking others to think about stereotypes and how they affect society.
His goal is to collect 10,000 faces through a series of photo shoots and then present an exhibit in 2017. Each photo is a black-and-white close-up of a human face, nothing more. No names will be associated with the photographs.
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“I’m setting it up so that when you walk in, you immediately feel like all these faces are looking at you,” he said. “But then by the same token, you’re going to be reflecting outward on all these faces.”
He got the idea for Complify – a slang term used to denote the opposite of “simplify” – when a friend pointed out a stranger and judged the person to have HIV.
“Originally I wanted to do this only about HIV and AIDS,” he said, “but then I got to thinking about how many other stereotypes are out there.”
Chavira feels that stereotypes are a part of our everyday lives, and so his goal is not to eradicate them.
“My goal is to bring attention to the issue, the issue being that we all use them, and sometimes we use them blindly, like we don’t even realize we’re doing it,” he said. “So I think that through art, through creating this exhibit, that will force introspection on the viewer.”
Chavira will hold two photo shoots at SPARKcon, which starts Thursday in downtown Raleigh, and again on Sept. 27 at Cirque de Vol studios in downtown Raleigh.
When people come to a photo shoot, they are offered the chance to draw a visual response to one or two questions: “How do you feel stereotypes affect our society?” and “What do stereotypes look like?”
The exhibit itself will be interactive, with a chalkboard-painted drywall cube posing a reflective question that viewers can answer. He hopes to host workshops and, in the end, create a book. The project is supported by the LGBT Center of Raleigh.
“I just want people to realize that while they may not agree with the message of the project necessarily, they don’t have to,” he said. “That’s the great thing about art – you don’t have to agree with it, but it is an issue. It’s not something that can be eliminated, it probably never will be eliminated, but it is something that people need to be more aware of.”
Vision for the future
Chavira was born in Johnston County’s Four Oaks, which he left to pursue a bachelor’s degree in cultural studies at Lees-McRae College. He went next for a master’s in nonprofit agricultural development from N.C. State, where he delved into photography.
Now, he and his partner, Alfred Harvey, own and operate the March Hare Gallery, a small studio in downtown Raleigh’s Carter building, where a rabbit sculpture hangs over the doorway. Chavira, who was named 2013 RAW Photographer of the Year, also manages his own 3-year-old photography business, In Contrast Photography.
Chavira is working out details for a new arts organization in Raleigh that will serve the Triangle through educational classes combining art and agriculture. To help with this, he’s pursuing a master’s in international relations with a focus on sustainable development through a distance program at American University in Washington, D.C.
In the future, he may take his camera across the country, seeking more people to “complify.”
“In the end, we’re all so much more complicated than these stereotypes, and stereotypes just simplify us,” he said.