Photographer Catalina Kulczar-Marin had what Oprah Winfrey would call an "Aha!" moment last summer while watching pundits on television debate California's controversial Proposition 8 policy, which bans gay marriage.
What if — she pondered — someone told her that loving her husband was wrong? What if he was in the hospital and she couldn't visit him? How would the talking heads on TV feel if they loved someone of the same sex and couldn't celebrate their love by saying "I do"?
Those thoughts planted the seeds for Let Love Reign, a collection of black-and-white portraits by Kulczar-Marin of Charlotte gay and lesbian couples — and the crux of a national movement to legalize same-sex marriage.
"I just had one of those amazing moments where I had this idea," she said. "I saw in my head the images, the simplicity ... the same-gender couples and the light bulb went off, just like that."
The images she captured will be on display in an exhibit at the Gil Gallery in Uptown (starting Oct. 22) — and one shot is even featured on a billboard, which was erected this week, on Interstate 77 North at Remount Road.
After her epiphany, Kulczar-Marin, who's photographed notables like The Rolling Stones and Donald Trump (and snapped pictures for Creative Loafing), initially sought out subjects and assistance for the exhibition via Facebook and on Twitter (using the hashtag "#topsecretproject"). Through those sites — and through personal referrals — she found the couples featured in Let Love Reign.
Kulczar-Marin shot the photos, but she had help from a team of people: Jim Mitchem, founder of the local ad agency smashcommunications; Crystal Dempsey, owner of From The Hip Communications and a writer; filmmaker Cristina Cassidy; commercial photographer Michael Carroll; make-up artist Samantha Smith; Web designer Jon Aron; and Kulczar-Marin's husband and graphic designer Juan Marin.
"The beauty of this project is that it was born in Charlotte," she said. "And we will see where it goes from there."
Giving the show and the movement legs is the company Sappi Fine Paper North America and its Ideas That Matter grant — a program that is "aimed at helping designers contribute their talents to the charitable activities that they care about most."
And though the effort started in Charlotte and features Queen City residents, Kulczar-Marin doesn't think that all Charlotteans will accept it. "I think it's going to be shocking," she said of the expected reaction to the exhibit and the billboard. "I'm hoping that it will be controversial and shocking — because it will get people talking."
Locally, there's always been a murmur, she said, about same-sex marriage, but there "hasn't been any yelling."
"I'm hoping people are going to scream about it. I want there to be a dialogue."
Those interested in participating in such a dialogue will have their chance to talk about marriage equality with leaders from the faith, business, nonprofit and LGBT communities during a discussion on Oct. 23 — the day after the exhibition opens — at the Gil Gallery from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Visitors will also have a chance to sign a banner to show their support of same-sex marriage.
"To me it's all about the conversation," said Kulczar-Marin, "making it loud and putting a face to the issue."
Kulczar-Marin took Creative Loafing behind the scenes of Let Love Reign and offered insights about three of the featured couples.
Tonya and Lashawnda: "Tonya and Lashawnda radiate when they're together. Theirs is a beautiful story because they met and were friends for some time before they discovered the love that they have for each other — and they've been together for a few years now. They emanate love."
Scott and Lamont: "They met out dancing, and when they first saw each other, they didn't do anything. The second time they met, one of them approached the other. They've been together for seven years. They are a beautiful, radiant couple. Comfortable and loving. They have some really cool rings. You can see it on Lamont's left hand. They are not afraid to show their commitment ... and they are wearing rings — just like I wear a ring and my male husband wears a ring."
Tim and Neal: "That is Tim with his eyes closed. It is such a tender moment. It's one of those moments where I probably said, 'think about how much you love your partner' and snapped away. What's so powerful about it is, Tim is in absolute bliss and so much in love. Neal is ... looking at the observer as 'I am here, and this is the love of my life.' Powerful and assertive; 'this is it, this is my guy — my partner, my love, my life.' He's looking at you, but he's comfortable, as is Tim. This is all about love. The laws, I think, are flawed because love is love. It doesn't matter if it's two men, it doesn't matter if it's two women. Love is blind. It doesn't discriminate. The government, on the other hand, is discriminating."