Local photographer turns talking with strangers into year-long assignment
CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - By Ray Rivera
A local photographer has set out to meet at least one new person every day, capture a story about them and snap their portrait as part of a year-long photo essay.
Since January, when he moved to Charleston from Asheboro, North Carolina, Austin Rich has been gathering hundreds of stories from people in the Lowcountry.
It's all in an effort to complete his photographic project, 365 Days of Talking with Strangers.
The stories and pictures, found on the project's Facebook page, offer a small, and often-times significant look into the lives of every day people.
Some of the tales offer in-depth and personal anecdotes that one would hear from a close friend, rather than someone you just met.
More often than not, Rich says he's surprised at the extent people would be willing to reveal about themselves to a stranger.
One such experience was when he approached a firefighter with the Charleston Fire Department.
"Remember the Charleston Nine. The Charleston Nine were nine fire fighters that were killed on June 18th of 2007. Six of those nine were stationed at my station and I was the only survivor that night from my station. So, if I were to speak in front of a large crowd of people, I would just say remember the Charleston Nine."
"He told me about the Charleston 9…It caught me off guard," Rich said. "It's so simple to walk past a fire station and not think about it until someone tells us about what has happened."
The stories range from lighthearted tales of good deeds, advice from the young and old, to intimate and sometimes sorrowful moments that end on a hopeful note.
"I believe that the people I photograph, trust me," Rich said. "If they didn't trust me, I couldn't take their photograph in the first place."
Rich said trust is an essential ingredient for all his encounters, especially those of a sensitive nature.
"I was wrongfully incarcerated 16 months for a crime that I did not commit. I wanted to know why is this happening, of course it was heart breaking for me, my friends and my family. I began to ask the age old question why do things happen. How can all these bad things happen, if God is all powerful and all god. He is either not powerful enough to stop these things from happening or he is choosing not to stop these things and I want to know why? It was only after justice had been rectified, after my time of captivity, and after hindsight that I began to have a new perspective and gratitude for life. I sincerely believe that there will be a day when all my questions will be answered, where I can forgive all the wrong doings that happened to me and why it happened in order for things to be the way they are now."
"When I spoke to him, it surprised me because I didn't expect that he had served time," Rich said. "I am surprised at stories at times. He seems so passionate and genuine. At the end of the day it's his story."
So far, Rich has posted around 500 stories from North Carolina, and 100 from Charleston. Rich gets on average five stories a day, and will place one to two stories or more on his Facebook page for a given day.
With a vast collection of tales on hand, Rich is hard pressed to come up with any favorites.
He says each one is different and has their own distinct feel and tone, some of which are relatable, while most uplifting and inspiring.
"Recently I felt as if I was losing faith in humanity until, I was at the gas pump. I only had a dollar and some change to put in my gas tank. When I left to fill up my car, the man behind me gave the attendant 10 dollars for my pump. I didn't realize it until I was filling up my tank. It's all about the little things that give people hope. I believe we should keep the karma ball rolling. the next opportunity I have to help out my fellow man, I will. It reminds me that if more people in our generation set a good example for the youth, then they will have higher expectations for themselves, inevitably making the world around us a better place."
"What he said really struck a note with me," Rich said. "He said that in order to keep the 'karma ball' rolling, when he can, he wants to do something good for someone else. Especially the next generation so that they will have good expectations for themselves."
They're the same expectations that Rich placed on himself ever since he started the project in North Carolina in February of last year when he received a gift from his girlfriend.
"Rachel Doblin gave me the book Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton," Rich said. "The book showed me that not only was it okay to photograph strangers, but something more could be made of it as well. He's a huge inspiration for me."
Rich cites Humans of New York, the book and the award-winning blog, as a major influence and the "final push" that got him to create his own project.
Rich in downtown Charleston gathering a story for his project 365 Days of Talking with Strangers. (Source: Ray Rivera/Live 5 News)
Rich also acknowledges a few others, including Doblin, who helped make the project a reality; his high school teacher, Sandra Litzenberger, who drove to another county to collect books for him after seeing his potential; his grandfather who Rich describes as a "persistent motivator"; and his journalism teacher, Jay Capers, who forced Rich to step of his comfort zone by completing various assignments…like photographing strangers.
"(Laughs)I was always afraid of photographing people, even when I saw the moments," Rich said. "Once I finished [Capers'] class, I was completely comfortable talking with strangers and photographing people."
Rich says the typical reaction he gets from people he approaches is surprise that a complete stranger would approach them, ask them significant about their life and take their photograph.
It's the same reaction Rich says he experiences when a stranger he just met lets him capture small, but important times of their lives.
"It is safe to say that recently both of us lost our way and through that great hardship we found it again, which leads to being grateful for everyday. It is a unique experience, you wake up in the morning and live your day pretty secularly, and it is easy not to make moments to be thankful for everything that is going on. I believe gratitude is something we both found."
"Believe in God. There has been three separate occasions where he has saved my brother's life. He had an appendicitis when he was four. His appendix exploded and led to poison throughout all of his organs. We were able to get him there within what would have been the last 8 hours of his life; my brother was dying, yet he lived. Another time was a fatal car accident, and the third time, he fell off a balcony which once again landed him in the ICU. So any time, I was loosing faith, I remember that good things do happen. Whether people believe God is real or not, one of the main keys to happiness is to have faith in something that is of a higher power."
365 Days of Talking with Strangers will be completed by the end of February, but Rich has no intention of stopping; he's produced a new website for his projects and is set to do 1,000 Days of Talking with Strangers after the completion of his current project.
"I once heard heard that we can't learn much of anything if we only hear ourselves speak," Rich said."So I believe it's important that we take the time to listen to people and hear their story, because there's always something positive…something we can learn from their story."
Copyright 2015 WCSC. All rights reserved.
All pictures by Austin Rich unless stated otherwise.
Music by Ray Rivera & Sam Stringfield.