BYU rehangs photo exhibit

Display depicting gay students is back in the Harris Fine Arts Center

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 10 2008 12:11 a.m. MST

PROVO — Portraits of gay Brigham Young University students taken by a photography major for a class project are back in an exhibit at the school's fine arts building four days after school officials removed the display.

Michael Wiltbank, a senior from Eagar, Ariz., photographed students who identified themselves as gay, then paired each one with a portrait of a friend or family member who provides that student with support.

The photographs were not labeled. The artist's statement said labels create societal divisions. "It is my hope this body of work can be a vehicle for tolerance, support, love and change," Wiltbank wrote.

The display debuted in the atrium of the Harris Fine Arts Center on Dec. 1 in an exhibit of projects done for a fine arts photography class taught by Paul Adams. On Friday, Wiltbank's display was removed and the exhibit rearranged.

BYU spokesman Michael Smart said a miscommunication between administrators in the College of Fine Arts and Communication led to the removal.

"When the action became apparent after the weekend, college administrators reviewed the decision," Smart said. "Because the project does not violate BYU's honor code, the project was rehung Tuesday afternoon."

BYU admits gay students who sign the school's honor code, which prohibits sex outside of marriage.

"One's stated same-sex gender attraction is not an honor code issue," Smart said. "Homosexual behavior is a violation of the honor code."

The photos can be viewed on Wiltbank's blog, jmichaelwiltbank.blogspot.com.

Wiltbank said he spoke with college leadership on Monday. Later that day, bloggers around the country began to criticize BYU and its owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some attacked the school and church. The Deseret News requested a statement from the university Tuesday morning. The display went back up Tuesday afternoon.

"I feel great about it," Wiltbank said of the resolution shortly after revisiting the display Tuesday evening. "It's admirable of them to do that. While it was frustrating it was taken down, I'm impressed they put it back up."

He said he was told the miscommunication was between the dean of the college and members of the Visual Arts Department. He wasn't required to replace the display.

"I thought it was important that if they were willing, then I in good faith should put it back," he said.

Wiltbank did field offers to put his exhibit on display in other art galleries but so far has declined because he created it specifically for the BYU community. He expressed disappointed in some blogs that attacked BYU and the LDS Church. Before the university allowed the display's return, Wiltbank, who is LDS, wrote on his blog that he wished to finish his degree at BYU and had a responsibility to follow the honor code he signed.

Wiltbank said he had gay friends and thought the project, which focuses on the eyes of his subjects, was poignant and timely. He made new friends during the project.

"They're really the ones the project is about," he said. "It's really not about me. I'm their photographer. They were the ones brave enough to put their faces out there."

Wiltbank found the experience was instructive.

"I don't have any bitterness," he said. "The whole premise of the show was to show tolerance and support on both sides of the issue. What I wrote on my blog about the removal has been construed as bitter, but I didn't think it was. I think what some said on the Internet went against what I was trying to do with the exhibit.

"If we yell out hatred and bigoted things, nothing gets better."


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com

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