In 2009, Sydney photographer and community worker Evan Cooper watched both of his grandmothers say goodbye to their husbands in quick succession after many happy years of marriage.
As the end approached, he noticed both couples taking pleasure in the smallest of romantic gestures — a stroke of the hair, a pat of the hand — and wondered: I’m gay. Will I ever have this?
“I realised they were still very much in love, and I wondered as a gay man if that was really possible for me, because I’ve never had a relationship longer than a couple of years, and most of my friends are the same,” Cooper told the Star Observer.
From that seed grew The Commitment Project — an ambitious Australia-wide photographic project that’s taken up almost two years of Cooper’s life to date. His mission? To photograph happy, committed same-sex couples in long-term relationships.
“Trying to define a long-term relationship was really hard — everyone was throwing ideas at me — but according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the median length of an Australian marriage is 8.7 years. I decided that would be my baseline for inclusion in the project,” he said.
The resulting collection of photographs, documented at www.thecommitmentproject.net (a revamped new website is on its way to accommodate the ever-growing collection), must surely stand as one of the most powerful tools the Australian LGBT community has in the fight for marriage equality.
“It didn’t start out that way, though,” Cooper said.
“The debate about gay marriage seemed much quieter when I had the idea for the project. And to me, it’s not so much strictly a gay marriage message — it’s a broader message of equality and anti-homophobia.”
Cooper said he hoped the photographs would resonate not just with straight viewers, but also with people in the gay community. It’s a sentiment echoed by 40-something Petersham couple Glen and Greig, who were eager to have their 25-year relationship documented as part of the project.
“Long-term relationships are generally quite invisible within the gay community,” Greig told the Star Observer.
“Part of that is that gay guys will get into a relationship then disappear into the suburbs — they become invisible,” Glen said.
“Then you get new guys coming on to the scene and looking around saying, ‘Where are all the guys in long-term relationships? They don’t seem to exist.’
“That’s why I thought this was a very worthy cause: I always like to do things to help dispel the myth that gay relationships don’t last.”
Commuters will be forced to challenge that myth from next week when Cooper moves into the next phase of The Commitment Project — placing a giant billboard featuring a selection of his subjects’ portraits at Sydney’s second-busiest train station, Town Hall.
The billboard will face across from a platform, bringing throngs of commuters face-to-face with 25 same-sex couples, some perhaps for the first time.
“I wanted to have it in a really public place. I could rent a gallery, but the only people who’d come are those who are already totally into the idea — no one would be challenging themselves,” Cooper said.
This very public display isn’t the end of The Commitment Project. Cooper is still keen to photograph same-sex couples who’ve passed his 8.7 year threshold, and has plans for further billboards and public displays in other Australian capital cities.
“As the collection grows bigger, it has more power. There’s so much diversity. Just last night I added a photo of a Filipino/Italian couple with a 15-year age gap between them. Other couples are born months apart.
“One couple met on the first day of uni, others didn’t meet until they were in their 40s. There are couples of different ethnicities, different religious backgrounds. I’ve been to the Blue Mountains, Melbourne, the Central Coast and Campbelltown to take photos.
“The more we show all those differences, the more we’re really showing that we’re all pretty much the same deep down.”
INFO: The Commitment Project billboard will be launched at Madame Fling Flongs in Newtown from 3-5pm on Sunday, September 11. The billboard will be displayed at Town Hall Station for a month from September 12. For more visit www.thecommitmentproject.net