Meet the Minnesotan challenging stereotypes with 'The No Evil Project'

Race, religion, politics, sexuality – everyone has labels. But Troy B. Thompson says they don't define us.
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Are you evil? If not, this Minnesota photographer wants your help.

Troy B. Thompson is on a mission to prove that people aren't just defined by their labels. For the past six years, he's been working on a social art project that aims to help people of all backgrounds come together and find common ground.

The No Evil Project is simple: A person poses for photos as the three wise monkeys, "See No Evil," "Hear No Evil," and "Speak No Evil." Below the photos are three labels that describe the subject, as well as a good deed that they've done.

The idea is to challenge negative stereotypes that are associated with labels, and show real people behind them that are improving the community. It also encourages conversations about uncomfortable topics like race, religion, politics, and sexuality – and hopefully helps change some misconceptions.

Here's Thompson's daughter showing how it's done:

"We're so paranoid to talk about differences now, so people are stopping. But if you do that, then you don't learn about different types of people, and stereotypes only get worse," Thompson told GoMN.

"It puts faces to the labels. You see a photo of someone who is different, and maybe even someone with labels that you consider 'evil.' But maybe they have something in common with you too, and then you see their good deed. A lot of times just meeting someone, even meeting vicariously through a photo, can challenge your views."

Thompson explains more about the philosophy behind the project in this TEDx talk:

The St. Paul native has photographed over 6,000 people of all different backgrounds so far, and wants to continue to grow the project.

His photographs are not just art – they're also being used in diversity and anti-bullying programs in schools, colleges, and corporations.

"We've had photo shoots in Minnesota, California, and as far away as Malaysia as I help groups organize events in their own communities. So the potential is worldwide – everyone has stereotypes," Thompson said.

If you want to be part of the project, here's how to get involved.

Q & A

When did you start the project, and what was your inspiration? It started in 2011. A lot of it was in response to the presidential election and the "us vs. them" mentality. Everyone was kind of being demonized by one aspect of themselves, and I've always had a diverse group of friends, so it was kind of silly to me that people were so afraid of others who were different.

I wanted to find a way to talk about uncomfortable things and connect with all kinds of people. You know, if I write a book, the only people that buy it are going to be like me – I didn't want to preach to the choir. So I came up with this exercise that seems trivial to get people to open up.

How do you find people to photograph? Well one of my labels is introvert, so at the beginning I knew I wasn't going to be walking around finding people. I set up a booth at a local art festival and let people come to me. First day we did this, 230 people wanted to pose, which was surprising, because you really are opening yourself up with this kind of thing. So that one art festival grew into this whole social art project that kind of went crazy.

Why the monkeys? It's just a silly way to get people to think about the concept of being "evil." Comedy is always a way to talk about uncomfortable things. And tons of people have seen it ... When younger people come up, it's funny – they know the three wise monkeys from the emojis. Most people have heard about them in some way. It's something they can relate to, and it makes it fun.

Did the project take on new meaning after the 2016 presidential election? Yeah it kinda got amped up a bit. I think right and left are both affected by stereotypes. The uptick in violence against various groups is raising awareness, if there is a silver lining to it. It shows that these things are still an issue, that they haven't been solved yet, and there's still a lot of work to do. I think it gets better every generation, but I worry when there are groups of people who only talk to people like them.

Do you think there really are "evil" people out there? Well, the question on the website, "Are you evil?" is tongue-in-cheek. I don't believe that people can be 100 percent evil. That's not my philosophy. I know people I disagree with on pretty much everything, and they would still help someone in need. We have felons in the project that have done bad things and have turned themselves around.

I have people that will look at the photos and then say "Well I know this person is evil because of the labels they have." And I say "Okay, let's talk about it." These are the people I want to talk to, and I have really good conversations with them. Labels aren't good or bad, it's the stereotypes and experiences that people put upon those labels that make them good or bad in their eyes.

Any feedback from the project that really stuck with you? I did an exhibit at a high school recently. Teenagers write things that some adults wouldn't be comfortable enough to share. While writing their labels, some kids came out of the closet. Others used labels like "cutter," "rape survivor," "alcoholic," and "drug addict." Some students told me their friends didn't even know these things about them. But they hoped that sharing would help other kids that might be going through the same thing, let them know they're not alone.

Are there any types of people you haven't featured that you'd really like to participate? Maybe celebrities or politicians? I'd love to do more politicians ... No high-profile ones so far. I did photograph Cornel West and Whoopi Goldberg. But people fill out their labels and good deed after the photo shoot, and they both never sent theirs in. So I just have these awesome photos that I can't use.

One group I want to start working with is seniors – to combat ageism. There's really no shortage of stereotypes out there that could be addressed by this.

What's in the future for No Evil? Is there an end? My goal is to get every single person to do the project. (Laughs) It's a hobby that's gotten out of control. But it's helping people, and it's fun, it's so rewarding ... If I can keep doing this and pay the mortgage, life is good.

I'm currently looking into forming a nonprofit organization so that we can use donations and grants to bring the project to more places such as high schools where I've seen the project have the greatest effect. In addition to helping them find commonality despite their differences, they used it to show pride in labels they'd been bullied about, and it let them share their stories on topics that they may have been uncomfortable to talk about before in order to help others in their situation. That's been the most rewarding part of the project and something I hope to do more of.

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