Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova
Cianni’s documentary work explores community and memory, the human condition, and the use of image and text. We Skate Hardcore was published by NYU Press and the Center for Documentary Studies in 2004 and in photo journals and anthologies such as Double Take, Photograph, Creative Camera, The Sun, and The New Yorker.
His photographs have been exhibited at Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Nasher Museum, Photographers’ Gallery, London; the 7th International Photography Festival in Mannheim; and the George Eastman House. A major survey of his work was exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York in 2006.
Duke University’s Rare Books, Manuscripts and Special Collections Library established a study archive to “insure the preservation of the documentary record created” throughout Cianni’s career as a documentary photographer, including photographs, negatives, video, notes and correspondence made in conjunction with the projects.
His photographs are represented in numerous public and private collections: George Eastman House, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum of the City of New York, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Kinsey Institute for Sexual Research, and Bibliotecque National de France.
SB. How did you become interested in the project about gays in the military?
VC. In November 2009, as I was working in my studio and listening to the local public radio station, I heard an interview of Pvt. Nathanael Bodon’s mother describing her son’s discharge from the Army while serving in Iraq. She described her son’s discharge as an ‘outing’ by a fellow soldier in his platoon based on seeing photographs of him on his blog kissing his boyfriend. Nathanael’s mother spoke confidently, proudly and lovingly about her son. At the same time, I knew that the outing was a breach of the DADT policy, implemented in 1993 during the Clinton administration as a compromise to his campaign promise to overturn the ban on homosexuality that had been in effect since before World War II. From this one mother’s voice, I was moved to explore how many lives have been affected over the decades as a result of the gay ban and of homophobia in the military.
SB. How did the ban against homosexuality in the military affect the rights of gay men and women who serve in the US military?
VC. There have been considerable effects from the ban on gays in the military over the years. The real issues, as organizations such as the Human Rights Commission state, follow a long history of abuses that gay and lesbian people have experienced. Harassment and discrimination based on sexual preference resulted in lost careers and personal lives. In many cases, these men and women - highly skilled, well educated, patriotic, courageous and productive - attained high rank, received numerous medals and held top-level jobs that were essential to the military.
SB. The stories of harassment of gays in the military were not told for a very long time. What do you want to tell with your images and interviews?
VC. The ban against homosexuals, compromised the civil and human rights of a significant portion of the military – over 100,000 service members were discharged pre-DADT and over 14,000 were discharged post DADT - prohibiting them from receiving an honorable discharge to retain benefits accorded them for serving their country, sometimes under the extreme conditions of a combat zone. There was no recourse; their devotion to country went unnoticed and jobs were lost due to unjust policies. Hazing, harassment, humiliation, sexual assaults, interrogations, threats of bodily harm and, in extreme cases, death were inflicted on service members who were perceived to be gay of who came out as being gay.
SB. Why did you choose to produce this project in black and white?
VC. I am primarily a black and white photographer coming form a tradition of documentary photography that explores the human condition, community and the relationship of image and text. For me black and white allows the viewer to strip away his or her own perception of the reality or actuality that photography is oftentimes expected to depict. B/W allows the viewer to go to the psychological core of the subject rather than the emotional impact of color.
SB. Is there one story you can't forget?
VC. All the stories are unique and memorable; not to say they are would be to minimize one person’s life. Some are more tragic than others; some are more uplifting than others. Not all of the subjects interviewed and photographed for this project have stories that are sad, disastrous or catastrophic, Meeting each one, listening to their stories, recording their voices and photographing them affirms their dignity as human beings and brings to life our recent history. However, the stories that continually haunt me are the stories of sexual abuse followed up with silence and lack of justice. One story that is particularly disturbing is one of sexual abuse followed with repeated, extended and humiliating interrogations that resulted in a total disconnection with reality in one of the subjects.
SB. What kind of support did you receive for this project?
VC. I received support from The New School University, Palm Press and a successful Kickstarter campaign as well as the generous support from private individuals who believe in the project.
SB. Did you need the cooperation of the military for this project? How did they respond?
VC. No, the cooperation of the military was not needed for this project, nor were they contacted officially.
SB. You interviewed and photographed around 50 service members including a 93-year-old WWII veteran. Was his experience similar to what you learned from gay military personnel who served more recently?
VC. The experience of gay military personnel varies greatly from decade to decade. The three WWII veterans I interviewed served in an environment of total intolerance. Homosexuality was classified as a psychopathologic illness just before the Second World War and service members were subjected to psychiatric screening. If military personnel were found out to be gay, they were immediately discharged with a code outlining the specific reason on their DD-214 (discharge paper). There were major repercussions for this classification in civilian life. Therefore, it was necessary to be totally closeted and the experiences they recounted were laced with bittersweet memories of unrequited love, close friendships, and unabashed acceptance of their status as second-class citizens. They were brought up in a social climate where they had no rights, so that they had to remain silent if they valued their careers and at times their lives.
SB. Do you think that ending DADT will create a different environment and experience for gay service members?
VC. The repeal of DADT will allow gay service members to serve openly without having their careers and personal lives compromised. The U.S. military is very good at enforcing regulations and at times being at the forefront of tolerance and acceptance in terms of official policy, but they cannot change the attitudes of people and society in general. So officially and administratively, gay service members will not suffer the same consequences for coming out, but many will still encounter discrimination and intolerance within ranks because of attitudes. Also, because of the Defense of Marriage Act, gay service members still do not have the same privileges for their partners and families as heterosexual service members, so inequality still exists.
SB. In your opinion can this project help to provide a better understanding of a community who repeatedly experiences discrimination?
VC. The intention of this project is to humanize gay service members who experienced civil and human rights abuses – rights that are generally taken for granted in the heterosexual community - by providing the stories of individuals in their own voices. Over and over again in the interviews, service members and veterans stated their dignity was stripped away and their sense of honor was compromised and they felt like second-class citizens. Many of them also expressed that they wanted the same opportunity to serve their country, to have a career and to pursue and nurture a relationship with a loved one. Hopefully this project will affect not only how gay service members and veterans affected by the ban in the military are perceived, but also the gay community overall.
SB. Is this an ongoing project? What is the future of the project?
VC. Since November 2009, I traveled the east and west coasts and interior of the United States recording oral histories and making portraits of approximately 100 gay and lesbian veterans and service members from varied socio-economic, ethnic and racial backgrounds, and from all ranks in the military. I hope to continue interviewing and photographing until I have amassed up to 200 subjects.
Ultimately, the intention is to exhibit the project as an audio and photographic installation in large alternative spaces and museums. All the original material will be housed at the Rare Books, Manuscripts and Special Collections Library at Duke University, where an archive of all my documentary work has been established.