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A Broken Lightbulb: Samuel Greenhill's Intersectional Journey as a Gay, Christian Artist

As light filters through the window in Samuel Greenhill’s room, one may have difficulty deciding what to focus on first. 


A vintage pay phone stands close to the door, ready to greet guests. The fireplace overflows with an extraordinary collection of plants. A green streetlight sits in the corner, begging for attention. 

These displays of decor reflect Greenhill’s unique presence. However, a closer look into the 26-year-old photographer’s room reveals a common theme that can also be seen throughout his life: a broken lightbulb. 


Found on coasters, paintings and even as a tattoo on Greenhill’s arm, the image of a broken lightbulb is what Greenhill has come to identify himself with. Growing up in a religious household, Greenhill said he started to feel like there was something wrong with him as he became aware of the fact that he was gay. 


“When I was kind of becoming aware of me being gay, I felt like I was broken, and I felt like there was something not working in me,” Greenhill said. 


This is when the image of a broken lightbulb came to mind. 


“If your lightbulb breaks, it's trash. You're supposed to throw it away,” he said. “This kind of vision of this broken lightbulb being lit up from the sun and still being used came to my mind where it was like … my faith in Jesus is that sun that shines through that lightbulb. That whether that lightbulb is broken or not, it's still shining because it's been redeemed through that.”


Greenhill said after he had a dream for seven days in a row where a voice spoke to him telling him to come out to his dad, he felt it was the Holy Spirit compelling him to do so and obliged.

“It was terrifying to hear that dream,” he said.


Although he was nervous to tell his dad about being gay, Greenhill recalled being more confused about how he was feeling than anything else.


“It’s funny because it actually … didn't even connect; I actually didn’t realize I was gay when I came out to my dad,” he said. “I was saying, ‘I'm feeling this way,’ but my brain still did not understand that that was even gay. It wasn't a suppressed thing by any means … we just didn't talk about it. It just felt like it was a thing somewhere else.”


The moment he told his dad when he was 14 years old was when he learned what real grace felt like, Greenhill said. 


“In that moment was definitely the switch of, ‘Oh, I don't have to perform for love,’ which was very much my default,” he said. 


Greenhill said that being received with such grace during a moment of “intense vulnerability” is what has inspired him to stay true to his faith. 


“So a big inspiration behind the broken lightbulb is the key idea of redemption and the way God uses these parts that you don't want to observe of yourself are the very thing that he uses for showing what love looks like and showing what grace looks like and connection and hope,” he said.


Although this image of a broken lightbulb didn’t come to Greenhill until later in his life, his relationship with creativity and photography started at a much younger age. 


Growing up in a boxy, brick home in Union, Kentucky, Greenhill would explore the woods behind his house, which helped foster his creativity. 


“I think adventuring and exploring gave me a lot of creativity as a kid, of just getting to play all these stories in the woods,” Greenhill said. “It was one of those few moments of pure childhood freedom of getting to do whatever you want and feeling completely separated from the suburban world of things.”


Greenhill said his creativity has been expressed through photography since he was a child.


“When I was a kid [I]would take my family's digital camera and mess with my Legos and take pictures of them and go into Microsoft Paint and add snow and little flakes falling from the sky,” he said. 


From pictures on a digital camera to using his parents’ smartphones to take photos, Greenhill’s “bizarre” obsession with photography was somewhat surprising considering he was always told that if he wanted to pursue photography as a career, he wouldn’t make much money off of it.


As a full-time photographer, Greenhill said he has learned that he can’t be picky when taking up jobs.


“Eighty percent of my income is from the most boring stuff you'll ever see,” he said. “I don't love all of my job, but it's not about that. I don't think I have to love all of my job.”


While Greenhill engages in a variety of paid work, including maternity shoots and album covers, his website and Instagram pages primarily showcase his eccentric personal photography. In this work, Greenhill creates alternate-reality-esque images by subtly altering elements of the subject using Photoshop, showcasing his creative abilities.


Greenhill said he was inspired to pursue this style of photography as a child. A combination of media consumed when he was younger, along with simply the way he felt when he played with toys created the perfect storm that shaped his photography style today. 


The ability to create scenes is what first drew him to photography as a child, Greenhill said. He would use Legos to create a “world.” He felt that if he took a picture of the scene he had created, he would be able to “make it truly a world” by expanding the photo to a size that “makes it feel like you’re a Lego person observing,” he said. 


Also inspired by “The Twilight Zone” and author and screenwriter Ray Bradbury, Greenhill said the scenes he creates in his work focus on taking some obscure element and slightly altering it. 


“That's become my inspiration for most of my work. How can we take a normal world and then just take one thing and make it off?” Greenhill said.


As time has gone on, Greenhill said another one of his motivators has become taking things usually not highlighted in mainstream media and making it the focus of his work. 


“What can we look for that is observed by the public eye and typically pushed away and how can we pull that into something that is more intriguing?” he said. “I definitely want to make sure that I lean into models that are not typically seen in the main frame of light. So I want to look at unique features that are not shown off as much. What does beauty mean? How can we expand that definition?”


Greenhill said his experience dealing with being a gay man in a religious community and feeling out of place has also contributed to this focus on highlighting those that typically go unseen.

“I think that's another thing that goes into why [in] my photography I so often look for the unobserved or the thing that's not often in the spotlight,” he said. “I myself felt like I was not in the spotlight due to the fact that I had this ‘flaw’ of being something I wasn't supposed to be in a Christian realm.” 

Whether through his art or the way he speaks of his faith, Greenhill has worked to inspire those who may feel “flawed” through society’s or religion’s point of view.


“For me, what I have felt like is that the very thing that I had felt ashamed of, which was my sexuality, I feel like God has used as the thing to use as light for others and to help people out, which I think is really cool,” Greenhill said.


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