Tanya Rachinee is captured on camera dressed like Captain America, in a shimmering red, white and electric blue outfit. The framed photo of her, face confidently gazing upward, holding a small Captain America shield in both hands, is on the wall as part of the American Superhero Project at UW Tower’s mezzanine. But Rachinee hesitated to call herself a real-life superhero.
A Thai cuisine chef and fashion designer who immigrated to the United States from Thailand at age 19, Rachinee has experienced xenophobia. A transgender woman who transitioned in 2000, Rachinee’s father was at first opposed to her transition.
“I don’t think that I am a superhero. I think I’m just an individual, normal person that lives my life, just wants to be happy,” said Rachinee at the opening reception of the American Superhero Project exhibit. “A lot of people tell me, ‘How can you endure all this hatred, all this negativity that’s put on you? If it was me, I would give up my life.’ I’m like well, I can’t help it, it’s just me. I can’t change my skin, I can’t change my race – I just have to live as happy as I can.”
Perhaps this, she reflects, is what makes her somewhat of a superhero after all.
Rachinee is among dozens of people from all walks of life photographed in Captain America attire by Seattle photographer Nate Gowdy in his studio at the former United States Immigrant Station and Assay Office in the Chinatown International District. The portraits include public figures like Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, and Seattle drag performer and activist Aleksa Manila, but also everyday people; 18-year-old student Giselle Lopez who’s working two jobs, deaf speech pathologist Gay Lloyd Pinder, Jeremy Best, a high school music teacher in a wheelchair.
Interview narratives accompanying the photos show the breadth of diversity in the United States and the superpowers of everyday Americans.
Photos from the project are on display at the UW Tower and have so far been featured in BuzzFeed and PBS News Hour.
The American Superhero Project was inspired by New York cartoonist and activist Vishavjit Singh who grabbed headlines for dressing as Captain America in a turban and beard. Singh serves as creative director for the project, along with photographer Gowdy, Gregory L. Evans and Christie Skoorsmith.
The September 11 attacks changed everything for Singh, who was working as a software engineer near New York City at the time. A Sikh man who wears a turban, Singh found himself a public target of bigotry and hate. Channeling his frustrations into cartooning, Singh drew a vision he had of a Captain America in a turban and beard fighting intolerance and hate. The drawing was well-received and sparked conversations when he exhibited his work at New York Comic Con in 2011.
Photographer Fiona Aboud urged Singh to bring the drawing to life and dress as Captain America himself. His reaction was an emphatic no. It brought to mind being bullied about being skinny as a kid, and, after 9/11, being called names and told to “go back where he came from.”
But 10 months later, a white supremacist opened fire in a Sikh place of worship in Wisconsin, killing six people. “It hit me a little hard,” Singh told the International Examiner. “Like many other people who don turbans and beard, this could happen to me.”
On a sunny day in 2013, he found himself in New York City dressed as Captain America, with Aboud taking photos. He was nervous, but people received him positively, and the day was a good experience. Singh thought, “Maybe I’m onto something, maybe this is a way to sort of push people’s perceptions about what it means to be an American.”
Singh crossed paths with Gowdy at the Republican National Convention in 2016 when Trump was nominated as the GOP presidential candidate. Singh was there to engage in conversation with people, and Gowdy was documenting the presidential race. There was little time to connect, but Singh made an impression.
“When you see a guy dressed as Captain America with turban and beard and holding a sign that reads, ‘Let’s kick some intolerant ass with Compassion,’ that portrayal really makes an imprint on your brain,” Gowdy said in an email. “It stuck with me.”
Gowdy, who has covered the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns as a photojournalist, started his career in Seattle as a staff photographer for Seattle Gay News and has worked as the official Seattle Pride photographer since 2011.
Singh posed for a portrait for Gowdy in his studio when he visited Seattle in May 2018 for the opening reception of Wing Luke Museum’s exhibition about his work called “Wham! Bam! Power! Cartoons, Turbans & Confronting Hate.”
The American Superhero Project was born in October 2018, when Gowdy came to a presentation Singh gave on behalf of Town Hall Seattle.
Also in the audience was Christie Skoorsmith, the mother of two eight-year-old twin transgender boys. Skoorsmith saw parallels between Singh’s work and the experiences of her sons, who have been expressing themselves through cartoons for the past three years as boys or male animals on adventures. Skoorsmith hoped her sons could meet Singh and find a mentor in him.
Singh’s story of people suddenly treating him with suspicion and calling him a terrorist after 9/11 struck a chord with Skoorsmith. Skoorsmith’s sons are perceived as boys to most people, who are happy to talk with and spend time with them. But sometimes when people find out they are transgender, “They start looking at them like they’re some kind of a freak,” Skoorsmith said.
“Even though their stories are so vastly different, that experience of being totally normal one minute and then totally seen as the other and possibly dangerous and possibly untouchable the next minute is an experience that my sons face multiple times in their life,” she said.
During the Q&A, Skoorsmith asked Singh if he had thought about doing a photo shoot where people from all walks of life could dress as Captain America and share their stories. Singh was interested.
As they stood in line to get programs signed by Singh, Gowdy introduced himself to Skoorsmith and suggested they do the project in Seattle.
“The best ideas are the ones where you’re like, ‘Oh, why didn’t I think of that,’ or ‘Why hasn’t anyone done this before?’” Gowdy said.
Over the next four months, Gowdy and Skoorsmith strategized to put the project together, enlisting the help of Gowdy’s studio mate Gregory L. Evans, a photographer and production coordinator for commercials.
Three weeks before Singh was due to arrive back in Seattle, they scrambled to put together a photo shoot. Gowdy immersed himself in all of Singh’s work and interviews to craft a call for participants on social media. Realizing he needed to provide props, Gowdy maxed out his credit cards to buy Captain America outfits and props. “It was kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really happening. I really just did that. What am I doing with my life?’” Gowdy said.
The team was hoping for as many as 15 people to show up for the first shoot, but more than 40 did.
It became a production, with a wardrobe station, makeup, video and audio recordings. People posed for a photo shoot Gowdy, and then met Singh, who conducted interviews.
Skoorsmith was expecting participants to leave soon after having their picture taken, but many of them started talking amongst themselves. “People were really starting to experience this amazing feeling of community,” she said. “Some of them would stay for 4 hours.”
In subsequent shoots, the team tried to re-create this feeling of affirmation, helping people feel heard.
“It was the coolest day,” Gowdy said. “I’ve been the only photographer in the room with President Obama; I’ve had the cover of TIME Magazine; my camera’s gotten me into some really neat situations, but I’ve never been prouder or felt better about what I’m doing.”
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The project developed into something none of them anticipated. “We just started capturing things and then realizing that our role as a team needed to simply be a platform for these voices,” Evans said.
The stories are at the heart of the American Superhero Project, according to Gowdy. The photos might pull people in, but the hope is that people “delve into the stories, and that’s what this project is really about — what’s under the surface,” Gowdy said. “Our stories help connect us.”
While interviewing participants, Singh asked them about their superpowers and vulnerabilities, the moments that define their story, and what it means to be American. The interviews ended with Singh wanting to know even more about their stories.
Singh sees the American Superhero project as an extension of his own performance art as Captain America, but different at the same time. “I’m sure when people see me dressed up, a lot of times people are wondering, why is this guy dressed up as Captain America?” he said. “I’m sure they have labels for me, sometimes positive, sometimes negative — and I think that probably happens with a lot of the people who have been participating in this project.”
Singh wants people to come away from the project intrigued, but also, he hopes, somewhat confused and uncertain. “Hopefully that confusion will lead to exploration.”
Singh began his Captain America project in the aftermath of 9/11, propelled by “racism, prejudice, bias, stereotypes in society.” In some ways, he said, the American Superhero Project shares these preoccupations, 15 years later.
“Even if this president had not come to power, I probably would still be doing this,” said Singh, who has been told to “go back home” since even before 9/11.
“To me, 2016 and beyond is just turning the volume up a little bit,” Singh said. “People are more comfortable now vocalizing and verbalizing their prejudices and racism.” But Singh believes the election of Donald Trump as president inspired more empathy in the last few years, too. “So many more people are feeling the heat, and when you feel the heat you empathize more with someone else who might feel the same way.”
Singh thinks the project has succeeded in making people feel connected to the stories of the participants. “I think that personal connection is what’s critical,” he said.
Evans hopes the project will inspire “people who didn’t want to hear stories about diversity craving to hear more stories about people that they didn’t know were just like them.”
When Gowdy approached Congresswoman Jayapal at an event to ask if she would participate in the project, she agreed instantly. The project also features former Houston mayor Annise Parker, one of the first openly gay mayors of a major U.S. city. Gowdy hopes to photograph presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, and the four congresswomen targeted in racist tweets by Trump, known as ‘The Squad’: Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
At the same time, the goal of the project is that “for every person whose name you may know, we highlight the faces and words of 10-20 everyday individuals who don’t make the headlines,” Gowdy said.
“These people are not selected because they are unique and different — they’re not necessarily more special than you as the observer,” said Singh. “You should be able to see you in those stories.”
Another goal is to take the project beyond Seattle. It was a good place to start the project, said Singh, as “a great sort of microcosm of America,” but the team wants to bring the project to as many states as possible, said Evans — the South, the Midwest, the Eastern U.S. and perhaps the southern border, collecting and sharing people’s stories. This might include more stories from conservatives, who are part of the American story but not well-represented by the project in Seattle, Skoorsmith said.
The future of the project is wide open — members of the creative team said it could expand into a podcast, a book, a documentary. The Smithsonian reached out to Gowdy with interest in the project.
The work is far from done — five percent done, Evans estimates. “What we’ve produced so far, not to diminish the work, but it’s essentially a proof of concept,” Evans said.
Wherever the project goes next, it will highlight the stories of heroes both ordinary and not-so-ordinary.
Tito Dith, a physical therapist and small business owner, thought of his father, Cambodian journalist Dith Pran, as he was interviewed for the project. “He has always been a hero of mine,” Dith said. Pran was a photographer for The New York Times who documented the crimes of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime and endured four years of starvation and torture. Pran coined the term “killing fields” and was the subject of a 1984 film of the same name. “I was just amazed at what he had gone through and accomplished, and for him to then tell the world his story,” Dith said.
Pran, who died in 2008, never got the chance to be photographed and tell his story for the project. But his heroism is captured in the project through the interview with his son, who is pictured gazing off camera as though in the distance, a hefty Captain America shield on his arm.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing to show to America and to the rest of the world that Americans are all diverse people,” said Dith of the project. “We all have unique life experiences and we all bring certain talents to this country and we all help America be what it is.”
The American Superhero Project is on display at UW Tower mezzanine, 4333 Brooklyn Ave NE, Seattle, until October 3. It will also be displayed at Vermillion Art Gallery & Bar from September 12 through October 5, with an opening reception on September 12 from 6 to 9 p.m. during Capitol Hill Art Walk. It will be displayed at Retail Therapy October 6 through December 1, with an opening reception on October 10 from 5 to 8 p.m. during Capitol Hill Art Walk.