Politics & Culture

All Eyes Are on Maxwell Poth

This multi-talented photographer uses his skills to benefit the LGBTQIA+ community.
Reading time 15 minutes
Photography by Tyler Rowell

What doesn't Maxwell Poth do? At the young age of 26, Poth, an epidemiologist, model, photographer, and LGBTQ+ activist, already does it all and we're here for it.

Although Poth started his career as a model, he quickly hopped to the other side of the lens to test his talents and has since found great success. Specializing in high-fashion portraiture, black and white, model test shoots, and more, Poth has made a name for himself as an established photographer boasting a highly impressive portfolio. His photos have also earned him over 50,000 Instagram fans and his work has been featured in publications like Vanity Teen, Out Magazine, and Seventeen Magazine. 

Further, Poth is the founder and executive director of a nonprofit LGBTQ+ suicide advocacy campaign, Project Contrast, which strives to shine a light on queer youth in hostile environments, focusing on the vulnerable. Poth has utilized his talents in photography to give LGBTQ+ youth a platform to share their stories and raise awareness for the high suicided rates in their communities. 

You were an epidemiologist, and then a model. What led you to pursue a career as a photographer? 

Yes! 

During the time I entered the modeling world I was going to school for Epidemiology. I was running a test site at the local HIV testing clinic and I thought I was on my way to a life in the Public Health world. Throughout my last year of college, I went through severe depression and anxiety. I call it my Britney 2007. I went crazy, bleached my hair, pushed friends away, broke up with my long term relationship, etc. It was a hard time for me. I was originally scouted as a “petite male model” at an agency looking to create a petite board. It was the right place at the right time. I went to an open call with a friend merely as a support for her. I was not looking to get signed. I waited in the lobby with all the other models looking to get scouted. Then an agent asked me to come in while he was calling the next person. I went in, it was brief. They asked me a few questions. The next day I received an email from the men's agent saying they would love to sign me as their first petite male model.

It ended up being a good experience. I was signed locally, then in NYC. I did a few jobs here and there and then booked my first big campaign with American Eagle. I was cast in their holiday campaign with another boy as the “gay couple”. We were the first LGBTQ+ American Eagle campaign! We kissed and acted cute. We even did a commercial. It was a fun experience. I even got photographed by one of my all-time favorite photographers, Cass Bird.

During my time in the modeling world, I grew very close to my agents. I would often hang out at the office during open calls. I would see all these beautiful women and men get turned away all because of their sizes or looks. I remember seeing one girl kept coming back hoping to get signed. I always found her to be so pretty. One day I went up to her after she was rejected yet again and told her I’d love to try and photograph her. I’ve always adored portraiture and was already a fan of many portrait photographers. I loved the life and the beauty you can capture in portraits. So I thought “Why not? Let's try this!” And before I knew it I was photographing all the models at the agency. Word got out and I started photographing other models as well. Then I began sharing my work online via Instagram, I took a film class and interned at the local photography studio.

The real reason I think I kept going was because my depression and anxiety went away. I would wake up in so much pain. I would cry and feel worthless. Then every time I picked up a camera everything was okay. I used it as therapy and through photography, it helped lead me out of depression. Within a few months time, I was getting hired more regularly to photograph individuals locally. Then I was asked to test models at my New York agency! I then began reaching out to other agencies in other cities. It was a great excuse to travel. Once I graduated college I always knew I wanted to move away. So I saved up by working three jobs. A server at a breakfast diner, a barista at a local coffee shop then I would host events at night at the local coffee shop. Sometimes till 2 AM when I started my day at 6:30 AM. I worked every single day for three months. Sometimes working triple shifts! If I didn’t have back-to-back shifts that was when I would practice my photography and schedule shoots. Then I packed up in my car and drove to LA to pursue my new dream!

A very interesting change in direction for sure but it all ended up making sense in the end. By following my two passions it led me to where I am today. 

What about photography intrigued you? 

Originally I was intrigued by the movements and the life some photographers would capture. I always loved looking at an image that would make me take a breath. It may be hard to explain but when you can see a picture and feel their breath. You can Feel them gasping for air and bringing life to something. I was also never an artistic kid growing up. I can’t paint, I can’t draw, I can sing but not very well. When I found photography it was a way to put my artistic mind and visuals out there. It felt the most natural.

As a fashion/portrait photographer, how do you connect with models? Can you share the most memorable experience you had with the person on the other side of the camera? 

I wouldn’t call myself a “fashion photographer” but rather I consider myself a portrait photographer. I call my portrait sessions “hangout sessions”. Even though my clients and talent are coming in to work I always want them to feel as relaxed as possible. We hang out and we talk. We jam to music, have coffee or if it’s late enough we’ll have a nice glass of wine or beer and get to work. I help get them comfortable and feel at ease. Some of my favorite portraits are literally them having a conversation with me. I love Capturing their answer or their thought. Perhaps I’ll Even catch them laughing after I say something hilarious because I am very funny (joke). 

My most memorable shoot to date is when I had the opportunity to work with Ashley Graham for an online Vogue piece during the Oscars. I prepared myself for a pretty chaotic day since she was hosting the red carpet. One thing I’ve learned as a photographer is to let go. You are there for a reason so you need to get out of your head. Don’t be nervous to speak with the talent and don’t be nervous to just be another person in the room. Have a “hangout session”. So that is literally what we did. She was such a delight to work with and I couldn’t tell you how many times we just laughed, made fun of the day and just captured her having the time of her life while getting ready. It was one of those full circle moments as well since during this shoot she mentioned Cass Bird and how they just did a cover story.

Those full circle moments are truly one of the reasons it makes those hard days, months, years worth it. 

 

You opened up Project Contrast to educate the community on LGBTQ+ issues such as high suicide rates and mental health. Where did you first get the idea of this platform? 

First things first. IF YOU HAVE A VOICE AND YOU HAVE A PLATFORM TO REPRESENT YOUR COMMUNITY, USE IT. No ifs, ands or buts.

Project Contrast is where my two passions collide. I am a queer artist and I am an epidemiologist. I’ve always wanted to help people. Organically Project Contrast was created by doing what felt right and what needed to be done. 

A little back story. I grew up Mormon in a small town called Bountiful, Utah. I came out in high school and I was the only openly gay kid in my school and ultimately my town at the time. There were neighboring schools and towns I knew about but they weren't very nice to me. So I felt alone. Years later a boy from my same, town, same high school and same age took his own life because he was gay and did not feel loved. He was bullied, he was ignored and I remember being him five years prior. It broke my heart. That same weekend two other boys in Utah took their lives because they were gay. It made national news! Then the statistic resurfaced. Utah’s leading cause of death for ages 10 - 17 is teen suicide! Many of those teens finding themselves a part of the LGBTQ+ community. I found this heartbreaking and I needed to help start the conversation back home. So I created a simple photo project first. I used the platform I have and I began photographing and working with queer youth in Utah. I then asked them to start writing their stories, what made them so confident being who they are in their conservative communities. At the end of the stories they then gave advice to queer youth just like them.

 

How does this platform work? Who/Where do you send these stories of LGBTQ+ youth to?

The premise of Project Contrast is “We understand it gets better, but what can we do until it gets better.”

We make this project relatable. We amplify their stories and give these kids a platform they may never have again. Project Contrast exists in order to save the lives of struggling LGBTQ+ youth across the country and it is actually working! 

On February 14th, 2017 we released our first series of stories. We were flooded with responses from people all over thanking us for sharing these stories. We were also put in two documentaries and two months later I was flown back to Utah for interviews and filming. It all happened very fast. The funniest part is the project didn’t even have a name yet. 

Before it was a non-profit we would publish the stories online via The Advocate and OUT Magazine. Even once we became a non-profit the two magazines became huge supporters of the project. Now with the new rebrand of OUT Magazine and an entirely new staff, we are hoping they can hop on the bandwagon and still support the project since we have grown so much since. 

Now we publish books to sell online and at events. We also put the stories and images online for free on our website www.projectcontrast.org for anyone to read and see. We want these stories to reach far and wide. My team and I want a transgender boy in a small farm town in Nebraska to find these stories, relate and understand they are loved and not alone. Then we may even meet them one day! That is why we travel to rural areas across the country, for the kids we have yet to meet. This year we are traveling throughout the midwest. We are halfway through our 2019 tour. Already working with 6 new states and over 100 new kids. 

 

What’s the long term goal of this platform?

Since turning Project Contrast into a non-profit our team has grown and so has our footprint! We are now a team of seven and we travel the country working with LGBTQ+ youth, centers and youth groups. Working with kids and other individuals who deserve to have a voice and platform. Educating what it is like to be gay where they are from, saving lives and relating to each other. 

Our long term goal is to just keep going at the moment. After our 2020 tour, we plan to publish a full book with kids all over the country. In turn, we will update the book every few years and eventually go international! We have already worked with over 100 youth and by the end of this 2019 tour in July, we expect it to double. 

This has already opened up so many other doors and platforms for me. Since Project Contrasts growth I have started to be looked at as more than a photographer but someone in the LGBTQ+ community here in LA, partnering with other advocates and non-profits. I was even asked to be on the advisory board of LOVELOUD, a non-profit created by the lead singer of Imagine Dragons, Dan Reynolds. We have also come out with an educational guide with the It Gets Better Project which is a  non-profit created by Dan Savage aiming to amplify queer voices just like us. 

 

Your images are quite striking and very beautiful. What do you feel it is about your images that resonate with the viewer?

Thank you! I do enjoy my portraiture work and I am mostly known for my black and white portraits. A classic “Maxwell Poth Portrait” would be a portrait of someone in black and white, leaning towards the camera with one hand on the side of their face, usually laughing or looking away. I try to capture the breath or emotion resonating at that moment. 

I feel like my viewers tend to like my images because I make them more about the person and less on the image. The viewers not only see the image but they feel the expressions I try to capture. That seems to be the most popular feedback I get from others and I would have to say I agree with them.

 

This may be an easy one, but how has Instagram helped your career? 

It is a photographers resume! It can help you so so much. Not only is it a perfect way to show clients what you can do but it is also a perfect way to meet and work with others. I’ve booked huge jobs through Instagram. I only knew one person in LA when I moved there 3.5 years ago and thanks to Instagram I was able to network my ass off and meet everyone I needed to meet as well as my friends and chosen family. I recommend it but don’t let it consume you. 

Some of the highest paid photographers don’t even focus on their following, they just focus on the art. So even though Instagram is a great tool don’t put your entire focus into it. 

 

What message do you want to spread through your photography?

I’m sure others can answer this as well. 

YOU ARE LOVED! I want others to know that through any form of art you can spread positivity in someone through the belief that you are truly loved and wanted. It has become my slogan, Project Contrast’s slogan and on my Instagram, I remind others every day. So much that I get daily tags, posts, and photos sent to me with the slogan, even as tattoos!

 

Do you have plans for Pride this year?

I do have plans for Pride this year! This is my first year where my schedule is filling up due to Project Contrast. I have some interviews and filming to do, some parties with another non-profit and traveling to other pride celebrations to have a booth for Project Contrast. I am very excited and by mixing my two passions as an epidemiologist and a photographer I feel like it has helped me become a more prominent artist which in turn has opened up so many doors and still is. **I am very grateful to use my passions in this way, and that I have been so widely supported and accepted.

Thank you for your time! I hope this Pride month is everything everyone has ever dreamt of and remember YOU ARE LOVED!

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