Rocking one million faces: Peggy Dyer talks about her new show at Breathe Denver

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After hearing Bon Jovi exclaim in "Dead or Alive" that he had "seen a million faces, and rocked them all," photographer Peggy Dyer was inspired. And ever since, she's been working on her own project: to photograph one million faces. She's now nearing the 8,000 mark, and the latest volume of her project, Freedom Is Not Free: Volume II, is up at Breathe Denver through July, honoring military men and women she photographed last month.

Dyer took some time to talk with us about the title of this latest installation, what keeps her going in her pursuit of faces, and Bon Jovi's ability to act as a muse.

Westword: Where did the title Freedom Is Not Free come from?

Basically, this idea first came to me at the beginning of last month. We had Pride in Denver and I thought, we all have someone before us in whatever genre we're in, and those people have paved the way. We take their losses and advances and courage and we see that reflected next to the messages, like at Pride.

I spent some time with troops who were deploying, and it changed everything, as well, and related to that feeling -- that we're benefiting from what those before us have sacrificed for. I did these photos in June, and by July they were hanging on the wall. It's not so much about it being the idea of someone holding a message written on a whiteboard or scrap of cardboard, but what I love is to create images from those people, as well. It's striking -- here's some real faces of men and women who are going overseas to fight for their families, and ours, and here are their faces. It's not just a number, it's a face.

Is this a part of your original project?

Yes. I started the project in 2009. I was inspired when driving over the hill going into Boulder and heard Bon Jovi say, "I've seen a million faces, and I've rocked them all." I started a website and I started taking pictures. I'm roughly around 7,861. I say roughly, because I have some on my camera, too. I just invite people up and sometimes I'm standing at the bar, or one time I was at an event that I was hired and paid to be there and people came up and wanted to be a part of it.

Do you think this is the first time Bon Jovi has ever inspired a large-scale art project?

I think that Bon Jovi inspires a lot of at projects, but nothing perhaps to this scale. A million is a big number. I recently was watching a show, Deadliest Catch, and they use that same song. That song is definitely out there inspiring them to fish [laughs].

What is the risk of taking a more political stance as an artist?

I think that as an artist you run the risk of upsetting people and diving into the heart of what people are afraid of. But you also run the risk of telling a story in a way that has not been told before. As an artist who took the photos in these moments, those loved ones in the photos are making much bigger sacrifices than I am. In those moments, we are kind of the same. It's not just a pretty picture on the wall; it's something that can start a conversation. The message may not be perfect, but whatever your thoughts on war and the military, all of these people make sacrifices to be in the military, and their sacrifices are bigger than mine.

Does the artist put the message in art, or does the art create the message?

I think the answer is both. The message is there, and the story is waiting to be told. People matter, and they have a lot to say, and a lot of times they're silent because they feel invisible. So any time you can give someone space to have a conversation, that's a big thing. You are creating a space for that dialogue. Just being open to being that conduit opens up the opportunity to tell a story. In my process as an artist, the pieces just sort of make themselves.

How has this project affected your perspective overall?

So many beautiful stories have come to me about the way this project is impacting other people. Every day I give a lot of thanks for it. I met a young girl, Zoe, who came to a gallery during First Friday a couple of months ago, and I shot some pictures of her and her mom. Then one day I got an e-mail from her mom that she died. Being in that conversation of the moment when I took the pictures of Zoe and her mom and how she lit up the gallery and the room really meant something to me. When I got the e-mail from her mom, when she died, I thought about the fact that I only had one picture of her by herself, because she was so full of life and wanted others around her in the photos. It was emotional.

Also, the project helps me cope with my dad passing away. He died last August after a long battle with prostate cancer and it was through photography that I was able to have a conversation with my father about relaxing into a peaceful journey instead of being scared of the journey.

These shining moments make me so thankful for all the aspects surrounding the project, that I get to experience. The emotions are the hardest part, but they also give me the most joy.

One Million Faces: Freedom Is Not Free, Volume II shows now through the end of July, at Breathe Denver (773 Santa Fe Drive). For more information, visit Dyer's web page.

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