Warning: This post contains nudity.
Signing up on 16 online dating sites and going out on 100 dates in a year might not be something you’d talk to your mother about, but it does provide fodder for an interesting photography project. Sean Fader did exactly that beginning in January 2010 and suddenly found himself enmeshed in a project in which he felt like an “emotional train wreck.”
Fader didn’t start out that way. “Sup?” began much like all of Fader’s projects: from a fountain of ideas that constantly springs into his head, often out of the blue. His thought was to send a message to an attractive guy he found online. The two would meet at the person’s apartment where, immediately upon arrival, Fader would get to work creating a portrait based on his preconceived ideas of who that person might be based on his online profile and previous communication. He would set up lights, rearrange furniture, and rummage through closets looking for the right clothing.
The two would then go on a date, and whenever it finished (could be an hour, could be the next day), Fader and his date would then collaborate on a second portrait that showed another—perhaps more realistic—side of the person. In addition to the date each portrait was taken, he included the screen name of his date with the initial portrait and the date’s real name and city tagged to the second photograph, along with bits of communication Fader felt was significant to their relationship. “I woke up one morning and thought it sounded like fun,” Fader said about the project. “I thought no one would do it, but then I sent messages to three people, and they all agreed … and then it was like tumbling down the rabbit hole.”
Fader said he would never describe his dates as “subjects.” “At worst they are sitters, but they are also collaborators,” he said. “I said to them, ‘I have a game to play. Do you want to play with me?’ And they are the ones who wanted to play with me.”
Of the 100 dates, 27 decided to play with game. Some wanted to meet with him first, whether out of anxiety over letting a stranger into their home or to simply to get a better handle about what was going to happen. But even a brief meeting before the first shot would destroy the mystery of the initial portrait. Fader said although there were wide parameters to what could happen after the opening photograph, he kept firm about the no-meeting-before-the-first-shot rule. “I couldn’t meet with them to make them feel better,” Fader said. “We had to jump in with two feet—both of us.”
Although it started out as fun, Fader said combining his personal life, his dating life, and his art into one project quickly began to take a toll. In the past, when one part of his life might be not clicking, he would delve deeper into another part. “When it all clicked, it was the highest of highs,” he said of the project. “But when the date was awkward, when the photographs were bad, and I felt bad about myself—everything was about an exterior approval—when someone rejects you, it can be ego-bruising, and when you’re supposed to also be making work and when you fail at that, too … it deeply changed me.”
On top of all of that, having to constantly make the other person feel comfortable to create the work also began to weigh heavily on Fader. Although at first the goal of the project was to find someone who would make him want to stop the series, Fader eventually decided he needed to cut the project off after the one-year mark. “The work is about the ‘other’ thing. I had to live [through the dates] to get the other thing. That’s why it happened, and it’s some of the work I’m most proud of because I did whatever it took to make that happen, and that included a lot of personal sacrifices,” Fader said.
Although the response to Fader’s work was mostly positive, some people felt he was being a user or a lecherous photographer. But Fader said he was completely up front about the work, telling the dates, “I think you’re hot and interesting and sexy, and I want to photograph you and have sex with you and have a date with you. How do you feel about that?”
Work from Fader’s “I Want to Put You On” series will be part of the group show “Strange Bedfellows” at Columbia College A+D Gallery in Chicago beginning Jan. 16.* Fader will also have a solo show at University of Illinois Springfield Visual Arts Department in Springfield, Ill., that opens on March 10.
Correction, Jan. 16, 2014: This post originally stated that work from Fader’s “Sup?” series is part of the group show “Strange Bedfellows” at Columbia College A+D Gallery in Chicago. It is not; work from another of Fader’s series, “I Want to Put You On,” is part of the show.