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Portraits Of Boston: A Different Way To See Strangers

Photos from the website portraitsofboston.com (Courtesy)

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BOSTON — If you’re walking around greater Boston and an unassuming photographer asks to talk and take your picture, consider it a compliment. Photographer Ivan Velinov says he looks for interesting Bostonians who look open to sharing their stories on his Tumblr Portraits of Boston.

The blog is getting a lot of attention. In less than a year it has almost 20,000 likes on Facebook and his most popular posts have hundreds of thousands of notes.

Nearly anonymous, Velinov says he spends most of his days and nights on this project, essentially living off of credit cards. Though he’s a bit guarded about his own life, Velinov says he enjoys trying to connect with people.

Velinov joined WBUR’s Morning Edition to talk about what usually happens when he approaches random strangers. Listen here:

Ivan Velinov: Often people’s first reaction is, ‘I’m not that interesting, I don’t know.’ And most of the time, in real life, they’re very interesting, they have a story and we have a story. I guess in a way it’s also something that helps those people take something away from the conversation. Couples often have to think about things that they may not have thought about. What’s their favorite moment together? What makes their marriage work? What makes their friendship work? They have to remember how they met and what they liked in each other the first time they saw each other.

I try not to have a predetermined question. I think it’s much better and much more real if you make them think about who they are or what their most important story is. It’s very important to look at the person and start a normal conversation.

Deborah Becker: How much time would you say you usually spend with someone?

Anything from five minutes to three or four hours. A few times I’ve been in people’s houses, they’ve cooked dinner for me. I’ve spent several hours listening to homeless people. So it does vary wildly.

Why do you think you do this?

I’ve always had a lot of interests that revolve around people. Psychology, anthropology and political science, cultural studies. It can be approached purely artistically by taking [portraits without captions], and I think this combines all of these approaches and then adds possibly a little bit of journalism or photojournalism.

Why do you think it is that you’ve been able to gather so many followers in such a short period of time?

It makes them look at strangers differently. It makes them think about themselves in a way, or brings out their compassion. This project is extremely immediate, it allows people to be a part of it. So I think that’s also in a way a very democratic form of participatory art, and I think that’s important. The photographer should not necessarily stand above and beyond their audience.

Is that why you try to stay anonymous?

I have not tried as hard as it may seem, I’ve posted my name a couple of times. But I think the people I meet are much more interesting than I am.

Is there a story of someone’s that stands out in your mind?

Yes, a homeless person who actually asked me to photograph him late at night. He had tried to burn himself twice, his family didn’t accept his depression and that photo became viral the next day. It had an overwhelmingly positive response. I haven’t seen the person since and I’ve always wanted to meet him and give him a photograph and tell him how much his story meant to so many people. That night I couldn’t sleep until 5 in the morning. I still think about him a lot.

Do you think everyone is coming at this with some interest in connecting with other people?

‘I dream of an idealistic world where you can just walk up to anyone, approach a stranger and strike a conversation with them’ — someone posted this comment, and I think it reflects a lot of people’s need for connection. We spend a lot of time social networking. At the same time, the concept of personal space on the street and the fear of strangers, it’s possibly stronger than ever. I think this is one of the possible contributions. Maybe breaking up some of the fear, some of the stereotypes, making people believe that yes, you can connect with strangers because they have both unique, and at the same time similar, experiences to yours.

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