Photographer Barbara “B.” Proud says she has been an artist since she was a child. Drawing, painting, and music were all a part of her young life. But when she was in high school and introduced to photography in earnest, “The geek part of me fell in love with the combination of science, technology, and creativity.” Now she’s using her love and genius to educate and spread love in an ingenious way.
Proud is currently working on some groundbreaking documentary projects that focus on the LGBTQ communities. In early March, she’s coming to Houston so that she can include Houstonians in making the change she longs to see. One of these projects is First Comes Love, a traveling exhibition of photographs, stories, and videos of couples in long-term relationships. Her companion coffee-table book First Comes Love: Portraits of Enduring LGBTQ Relationships, with a foreword by marriage-equality icon Edith “Edie” Windsor, was self-published after Proud was unable to procure a mainstream publisher.
She is now hard at work on her sequel exhibition, Transcending Love, which is focused on transgender and gender-nonconforming couples across the country “in an attempt to open hearts and minds to a community deserving of understanding, respect, and basic human rights,” Proud explains. “I am currently working towards representing the greatest amount of ethnic, geographic, socio-economic, and age diversity in this project, in order to show a country that is increasingly divided that transgender and gender-nonconforming couples are everyone’s neighbor.”
Transcending Love is already a traveling exhibit of photographic portraits and stories on view through February 16 at the Stonewall National Museum & Archive in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “I do hope that I will be able to make a book of this work someday, but I’m not yet certain how that will come to fruition.”
Proud explains that the Transcending Love exhibit is much broader in scope, and therefore already more expensive than First Comes Love. “I’m trying to cover much more geographical area in order to make the project really strong. I will need much more financial support (and/or a willing publisher) to make the book a reality. That said, I am very committed to doing all that I can to make that happen.”
This work could not be any more important to Proud, who sees the transgender community as a population in great need of love, support, and acceptance. “Trans people continue to fight for their existence on a daily basis. States are constructing laws stripping the trans community of basic human rights and dignity. That’s just absurd to me. This project is a way for me to make a difference. I may only change one heart and mind at a time, but if that’s what it takes, then so be it.”
Although her success has been great, Proud admits that getting to where she is now has been a long path. She grew up in New Castle, Delaware, a quaint colonial town on the banks of the Delaware River just south of Philadelphia. As for her schooling, she says, “I’d rather not talk about where I went to school. It’s insignificant to my career. The skills that I use now are skills that I taught myself.”
In fact, Proud says, “I stumbled a while after college, went to graduate school for a few months in Tucson, Arizona, and finally ‘settled down’ by moving to Europe to work as a photographer for the U.S. Department of Defense as a civilian.” She lived in Germany for seven years before deciding it was time to return to the States and begin a freelance career. “I wanted to be closer to my family as my parents grew older.”
She’s had her own photography business for over thirty years. “I’ve worked for corporations, magazines, and organizations. I’ve photographed tons of celebrities, including President Obama and Lady Gaga on the same day.”
Proud is also more than happy to talk about her adjunct-professor duties in the photography program at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She’s been there for twenty years now. “I love giving back and helping the younger generation become better photographers and artists. My students inspire me. I teach studio lighting, fashion, editorial portraiture, and a business class.” She says the university has been extremely supportive of her work. “My book launch for First Comes Love was held in the main gallery on campus, at the request of the University administration,” Proud says.
Up until 2008, Proud’s personal work was quite different from her current projects. “I was into photographing botanicals in a very Georgia O’Keeffe style.”
But then something was ignited in her.
“In 2008, my partner and I hit our 20th anniversary and became the longest-surviving couple in our families. We were in the most stable relationship, but [our straight relatives] on their second, third, and fourth marriages had all the rights. It wasn’t fair,” she says.
When Proposition 8 passed in California in the 2009 election, Proud says she hit a wall and decided that she had to do something in the only way she knew how—through photography. “So, I set out to show the side of the LGBTQ community that was never shown. The media shows all of the parades and protests—the flamboyance and the waving of rainbow flags, but I wanted to show the more humanistic side, and how we were all living for decades as ‘married,’ just without all of those rights.”
For Proud, the way to acceptance was going to be through understanding. “Changing the laws does not change people’s minds. Being able to include some notable figures—including the late, great Edie Windsor—made that project a unique piece of history. It’s not about how we changed the marriage-equality laws, [as other books explain], but rather why and for whom they were changed. I’m very proud of that project.”
Proud had no trouble finding couples to photograph, since she has been documenting the LGBTQ community for many years. “Having done photography for LGBTQ organizations for many years, I knew a lot of people. I’ve photographed the Human Rights Campaign’s national dinners for twenty years now.” Proud says that many people helped her make connections, or urged wonderful couples and subjects to reach out to her. “Once I started to get press, it was easier to find subjects. Social media was a huge resource, as well.” She spent a lot of time trying to find a truly diverse roster of subjects.
Proud feels that the transgender community was under-represented in her book, which makes her all the more determined to “get it right” in her current project. First Comes Love serves as her calling card now, she says. “It shows that my intentions are clear and honest, and that I am dedicated to making a difference. When potential subjects see the success of First Comes Love, they know they can trust me.”
This has allowed Proud to include notable figures such as Zackary Drucker, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Sarah McBride, and Amanda Simpson in her work.
“I wasn’t sure how I would be accepted by the trans community as an ally working to make a change,” Proud admits, “but so far I have been very successful. I am meeting and photographing the most wonderful people. I have photographed 60 couples so far, in 24 states, and I have a list of over 150 couples willing to participate. I am truly in love with all of my subjects. People who have seen the world in [all of its gender diversity] have a much broader understanding of humanity. I love it.”
Since a national conference of photography educators will be held in Houston in early March, Proud will be in town to photograph those Houston couples next month.
And yes, she is always looking for more subjects to add to her list, both in Houston and beyond. “I can’t promise that everyone on the list will be photographed, but the more opportunities I have, the better.”
Of particular interest to Proud are couples from Midwestern and Southern states, male/ male couples, ethnically mixed couples, and older couples. Only one partner in the relationship needs to identify as trans or nonbinary. “Couples should be ‘established,’ as in together for a few years and on track to stay together for the long haul,” she notes.
For each photo shoot, Proud spends about four to five hours with the couple. “We typically don’t know each other, so there’s time spent with introductions and getting acquainted.” She asks the couple to choose places in or near their home that are special to them. “The portraits that I make include something of their environment, because I feel that this takes the viewer one step deeper into getting to know the couple.”
Ultimately, Proud says she is looking to craft an expressive portrait that shows the emotion of the couples and their confidence in who they are. “I’m not looking to make their next holiday card picture. The more artistic and daring, the better—without going too far and alienating the audience.”
Following the photo shoot, Proud does a video interview asking about their relationship, and what makes it special. From the transcript of that interview, she writes an 800- to 1,000-word story that gets displayed next to each portrait in the exhibit. “These stories also bring viewers to a deeper level of understanding and, hopefully, acceptance. I also have footage that I will be able to use to make a short film.”
This work is a true labor of love for Proud—labor for which she very much needs financial support. “This is what I do in my ‘spare’ time with my own money. There is no staff, not even an assistant, and no magazine or corporation supplying the funding,” Proud explains. While she continues to apply for grants, she also welcomes tax-deductible contributions at any time.
B. Proud’s work is beautiful. Her message is inspiring. And the power of her projects is being felt across the country. She has every reason to “be proud,” and she’s giving some very lucky Houstonians the chance to make Houston proud, as well. Love is our key to acceptance, and Proud is doing everything in her power to make sure everyone feels its life-affirming embrace.
For more information about B. Proud or the Transcending Love project, visit firstcomeslove.org.
This article appears in the February 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.