PHOTOGRAPHS AND TEXT BY PAOLA PAREDES
On March 16, 2014, I came out to my parents in a three-hour conversation that took place in Quito, Ecuador. Accompanied by my sisters (who already knew), I documented the event as part of an experimental photography project I called “Unveiled.”
The results could not be predicted; I understood that from the outset. I had no idea how my parents would react. I knew that their utter rejection was a possibility; a serious risk. And yet, the more I thought about the potential of the project and the more ideas I had for it, the more willing I grew to take that chance.
My first kiss with a boy wasn’t as terrible as one might imagine. It was typically awkward, I suppose. The feeling I remember was the rather bland sensation of wetness on my mouth — no emotional bells or whistles. I didn’t discover the true value of a kiss until I was nearly twenty. It was my first kiss with a girl and it was everything those previous kisses had not been: immediately exciting, exhilarating and enjoyable. A few years later, I would fall in love for the first time.
I had shared my sexuality with my sisters a few years back, they were both immensely supportive about it, but the idea of telling my parents had never really appealed to me. I’d always been sure of their rejection of me. I was okay with not coming out and I’d never felt bitter about it.
The technical aspect of photographing such a delicate moment concerned me greatly at first. How exactly would I go about it? I needed to be as respectful to them as I possibly could and I needed their reactions to be as natural as possible. It was thus essential that they become accustomed and desensitized to the presence of the cameras. So I spent three weeks photographing them. I usually started in the morning, waking up early, and until they went to sleep. I followed them everywhere. They got acclimatized to the constant photographing much faster than I thought they would. After a few days they were practically pros.
Mom has always been a woman of routines. One of her favorite pastimes is to watch soap operas. It’s rare for her to be at home and not have the TV on. One day we were sitting down in the kitchen having a chat. She had just finished her afternoon snack, which regularly followed her daily nap. She took out her handbag and lit a cigarette. As we talked, I couldn’t help but admire her calm demeanor and the light above her head. I couldn’t resist, so I set up the tripod and asked her to just keep doing what she was doing as I prepared a roll of medium-format film. She was a great sport, but deep down I knew she was annoyed because I was blocking her afternoon soap opera.
Dad is a workaholic and has dedicated his life to running his business. He plays the guitar sometimes and collects tons of music. I can recall his obsession with music from a very young age. He’d spend hours and sometimes entire days with his vinyl records and CDs. It was difficult to ignore my dad’s love for music, as most weekends he would wake us up by playing his favorite songs loudly. Given some drawings from when he was young that I found, he also had the potential to be an especially gifted artist with a pencil or paintbrush.
Of the photographs I took throughout the weeks I spent with my parents, some of my favorites capture the natural interactions between them. They’ve been together for forty-four years and can be quite an adorable pair. There are so many moments that I took for granted and only noticed when I started to examine them through the lens. I was able to not only photograph my parents but also observe them in a way that I never had before.
There’s a lot of preparation that goes into documenting a moment like this, both mental and technical. Much of the mental preparation involved figuring out how to craft this special moment so it would be real, but at the same time make it photographically appealing. I knew I wanted to stage the five of us around a dinner table so in the initial stages I started researching movies, particularly films with dinner scenes. I analyzed the position of the cameras, the angles and the framing of the people present, so I could set up my own cameras in the best, most truthfully revealing, positions. I started keeping a journal, one that I would use to develop the entire project. In it I started conceptualizing and researching different lighting approaches I could use for the moment.
The idea of using flashes was discarded immediately given their overpowering and distracting effect, and that left me with two options. The first one consisted in continuous lighting using lamps, which I tested inside a studio before I left for Ecuador. And the second was natural window lighting. I was content with the initial continuous lighting results as in black in white they had a film noir vibe to them. But I questioned whether high contrast black and white would add unnecessary drama to the pictures. After the studio tests there was one major problem with the use of artificial light: tungsten light creates a tremendous amount of heat. Not only were my eyes squinting from the glare, I felt very much in the spotlight. It would be difficult to capture a natural reaction under such conditions, so my only real option was to use natural light. Luckily, I knew the perfect place. The family living room in my parents’ house had big windows, plus its familiarity would make us all feel more at ease.
I carefully calculated everything from the heights of the tripods to the measurements of the table. Once I arrived to Ecuador, I did countless tests using myself and friends as the subjects. I had them gesture with their hands and move around freely to test how much freedom the subjects could exhibit without going out of shot. I set up the camera to do tests and I captured movement and interaction around the table. I also tested various lengths of time intervals in seconds between shots. I tried every fifteen seconds, every ten seconds and every five seconds. It quickly became clear that anything longer than five seconds was too long because many things could happen in that amount of time and the cameras might miss it at the longer intervals. I meticulously kept the timing logs in my journal, as well as sketches of the table and the position of the cameras.
In Ecuador, I busied myself experimenting with camera angles and distances. I worked out who would be sitting where and which camera angles would best capture their reactions. I went to the local carpenter to have the table made to the exact measurements used in the previous tests.
Three days before the day, the living room was arranged with the table placed in the ideal position according to the distance from the cameras and the direction the light would come through the windows. Since the part of the living room, which has no wall, would be the background of the main camera, I had some friends help me arrange a large sheet to work as the back wall.
As the day came closer, I conducted last-minute tests with everything already in place, sitting in all the different chairs to see how the light fell on my face. When the big day came, I set the cameras in their positions.
Everything was ready… except me.
My mum got up quite early as usual, and prepared my dad’s breakfast before heading out to church, as she did every Sunday. Dad spent the morning watching TV in his room before he headed to his studio for a guitar session. It had begun as a pretty ordinary Sunday for them. But that was about to change.
At one o’clock, all five of us were together. I realized it had to happen then or never. I could tell that my sisters were almost as nervous as I was. I positioned them according to my carefully drawn plan. It felt surreal as they sat down. With everyone in position, I went to check the three cameras. I programed them to go off every five seconds, which was more difficult than it should have been because my hands were beginning to shake with nerves. The shutters started going off and I put on some background music just to muffle out the sound the shutters were making. It was an instrumental record I had asked my dad to have ready for me, featuring Spanish guitars and violins. I wanted something a bit classical, rather than trusting the radio and ending up with this moment accompanied by some over-the-top salsa.
I took my seat at the head of the table. I felt my heart pounding. I felt their eyes on me. I noticed that my parents were uncharacteristically nervous too. My dad was wearing his serious face; it was that look that had always made me want to run in the other direction when I was a little girl. He was expecting something serious, but clearly had no idea what. As I started talking, I found it hard to maintain eye contact with anybody at the table. Even over the music, I could hear the sounds the camera shutters made every time they captured a new photograph. I hoped they weren’t too distracting. I was mostly thinking that I couldn’t believe the moment was finally upon us. I started talking about love and acceptance. I talked about how important family was and how we must always come together. I went on like that for five minutes or so. At that point I could see tears in the eyes of both my sisters. Their support had been such an essential part of the process; they had walked every step right alongside me. I told my parents that there was something I hadn’t been able to tell them before. They didn’t move an inch. In fact, they barely seemed to be breathing. They just kept staring at me. The expression on their faces was tense and worried. I could feel their uneasy anticipation. The shutters keep clicking. My eyes moved to look at the ceiling as I said: “Since I was five years old I have known there was something different about me.” It took me a while to be able to say the next words. I looked down at the table and took a deep breath. As I exhaled, I finally uttered the words: “I’m gay.”
How long the words hung there in the silence? I couldn’t tell you, but I knew I couldn’t just leave them hanging there, so at some point I carried on explaining, trying to show my parents that there was much more to this revelation than just my sexuality. “The hardships have been overwhelming, like feeling different from everybody else from so early on, the suffering and the secrets. Coming to accept myself has been a life-long battle and I have endured a lot of pain in silence for too many years. After going through a long process of self-acceptance, I have reached a point where I am happy to be who I am and I want you to love me for who I am. That is, the real me.”
My parents didn’t react immediately, but I could feel their eyes on me. I took a deep breath and I forced myself to look at them. There was stillness in their eyes. I could no longer hold back the tears. I could no longer hear the shutters. I could no longer hear the music. Everything was blurry. Everything was tears. And then, through the blur, voices reached out to me: “We don’t care.” “We love you.” My mum and dad broke their stillness as one; their tears matched my own. Their hands reached for mine. My mum’s eyes were filled with tears. She just kept repeating, “I don’t care, I don’t care.” I could barely comprehend what was happening. I was in a state of shock. Where was the anger? I collapsed onto the table, my head on my folded arms, sobbing. I felt their hands on my head, comforting me the way they so often had to ease me through the discomforts of childhood. Finally, when I looked up at them I saw that they were smiling at me through their tears. My sisters, tissues to their eyes, were also overcome with emotion; they couldn’t believe what had just transpired either.
Dad began talking. He said the most beautiful things. He talked about acceptance and said that whom I choose to love was not his or anybody else’s concern. He stated that the idea I was gay had crossed his mind once or twice, and that he felt I’d decided to come out to them at the right time. Now, at the age of sixty-five, he had the wisdom and experience to focus on loving me, rather than caring about what others thought of me, of our family. He said that he would stand by his daughter even if the other parts of the family would not. If they didn’t accept me, that was their problem, not ours.
We talked for another two hours, probably more. I had a chance to tell my family what I had gone through as a teenager, how hard it had been to accept myself for who I was. They listened intently. I could never have imagined those moments that followed, with me sharing aspects of my life that had once been so hidden and with them so sincerely interested in listening and clearly sharing my hurt and confusion. But it suddenly all felt so easy.
At one point Mum got up to get a carton of cigarettes, placing it on the table when she returned. We all reached for one in unison. None of us were really big smokers, and we rarely smoked together, but those last several hours had been an emotional rollercoaster for all of us. As I smoked, I realized I was exhausted. Why wouldn’t I be? Although those last few hours had been emotional for my parents and sisters, I had been enduring those feelings intensely for every waking minute of every day for the past several months. I hadn’t slept well for weeks, but it would be wonderfully different that night. That night I would sleep with an inner joy and contentment I had never really known before — and I did.