In 1978 Greg Reynolds was a closeted homosexual working as a youth minister for a large, conservative, religious organisation in the USA; the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. His role was to train young Christian men and women to evangelise their peers in their hometowns. During term-time Greg would travel the country to colleges and universities, then in the summer his work would take him to Bible camps in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
During that time he was given a camera by a friend and began documenting the day-to-day activities of his conservative existence, shooting his wards immersed in Bible study or relaxing together on the beach. Then in 1983 he quit his job, came out and enrolled on an MFA in Film at Columbia University, learning the skills that would define his subsequent career.
Having rediscovered the images he took in his youth in a closet at his parents’ house, Greg has collected them together into a book that he’s now looking to fund via a Kickstarter page. Jesus Days for him represents a defining time in his life and the earliest days of his creative and sexual expression.
We were fascinated both by the quality of Greg’s images and the story behind them so dropped him a line to find out more.
Were you a proficient photographer before you started working for the Christian fellowship?
No. I had played with cheap plastic Instamatic cameras prior to obtaining my first 35mm, but I had little knowledge of photography. When I started photographing I had to learn how to use the in-camera light meter, and know the differences in F-stops. My focusing was lousy; I did not seem to think about it or realise its importance.
What was the environment like at the camp when you were working there? Talk us through a typical day.
I only worked at the camps during the summer, during the school year I travelled to my own assigned colleges and universities where I met with the Christian student leaders. We would have personal chats and prayer together – some Bible reading. Often I would take one of the students out on evangelism opportunities where we would approach a student sitting alone and go up and talk to them about Jesus and if they knew where they were going when they died. Once a week, there would be large chapter meetings where I would sometimes teach on a topic. Before the talk there would be worship and praise in song, and testimonies where students talked about how they met Jesus and what God was doing in their lives that day and week.
The summer camps were more relaxed and involved thoughtful thinking and prayer in a setting that was close to nature. Days would begin with personal Bible study and prayer, followed by breakfast, then Bible classes. Afternoons were free to hike, swim or read, with a motivational or inspirational talk in the evening.
What made you want to document it all?
I was not consciously documenting it, not in the way of someone who is focused on a project. I just liked taking and making pictures, seeing something that stirred me and then recording it. It was all intuitive. I wasn’t thinking that I was going to have a gallery show or become an artist. I had always been interested in paintings, so that was a probable influence. I was also very much inclined toward narrative in books and films.
What camera were you using?
I had a Pentax K1000 35mm. You never forget the first one.
Were you always aware of your sexuality and what did that make you feel in such conservative surroundings?
I was always aware of my sexual feelings toward men, but at the same time I pushed these feelings below the surface. During my youth I did not recognise my sexuality as being gay. Homosexuality wasn’t discussed, although as a child I was teased for being a sissy. Being called a sissy makes you feel that something is wrong with yourself, but you don’t understand what it is.
I would like to believe that sexuality does not define my work, but sexuality is an inherent part of who we are as human beings – we cannot escape it, nor should we want to.
What’s it like to look back on photos of yourself from such a defining era of your life?
These pictures bring back that time to me in a way quite different than had I just written in a diary. I feel like I can step behind myself at that age and look through my eyes, not to just see what I saw, but to see how I saw. Physically I no longer look as I did more than 30 years ago, so now I feel like I am looking at someone else, someone I knew very well a long time ago.
Much of your work now features beautiful men of the same age you were at that time, do you feel like you’re striving to regain something that was denied you at that age?
Today, looking at beautiful young men gives me pleasure rather than makes me feel guilty. Perhaps I still feel some yearning for a time that was in some ways lost to me. But I also know that this time period of the late 70s and early 80s was also the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Many men of my age – who came out much earlier – suffered the loss of many friends. I did not go through that in the same way, since I came out in 1983; around the time that gay men became aware of the association of behaviour and possible infection.
Do you feel like your sexuality defines your work now?
I would like to believe that sexuality does not define my work, but sexuality is an inherent part of who we are as human beings – we cannot escape it, nor should we want to. If I choose to photograph beautiful men, then that desire springs from my being gay, otherwise I would spend more time photographing women. But I do not only photograph beautiful men.
One of my long-term projects has been to photograph my family; my parents, my four brothers and their children. My sexuality does not define this body of work, yet at the same time I am aware that I am the gay son, the gay brother and the gay uncle. The pictures I make, the portraits I take, spring from me, and I am a gay man, but I am also an American from the south (Kentucky), son of a WWII vet, raised in the Southern Baptist church, and I understand that all these influences have also shaped who I am.