Two years ago, if you told Ryan Oakley he was going to be in charge of an artistic project that required him to routinely introduce himself to, converse with and photograph strangers, he wouldn’t have believed you.
“I’m a bit of an introvert,” said the Nelson engineer, who created Humans of Nelson on his lunch breaks after a friend sent him a link to the popular Humans of New York Facebook page.
“I like to be in my shell. I don’t talk to people, really. I’ve got my friends and family but I’ve never really valued a wider network of acquaintances. I always thought that would be a lot of work.”
That may seem like a strange comment coming from someone best known for creating touching portraits of random people, but the good news is somehow Oakley overcame his social hesitance and the Nelson community has benefited.
His Facebook page now boasts over 6,000 followers, he recently launched a campaign to convert his vision into a hardcover book using a Kickstarter campaign, and his website includes over 220 portraits.
But it hasn’t been easy.
“At first I met a lot of resistance to do it internally. There were so many reasons not to do it. Like time and kids and rejection. I was just like ‘Why would you put yourself through that?’ But the nice thing about seeing Humans of New York is I saw the potential early. You don’t have to convince people to look at it. It’s not like abstract art. The appeal is very obvious,” he said.
Oakley said the simplicity of the idea made it easy to incorporate into a discipline.
“I’ve seen the results of showing up and doing the work. I’ve tried to talk myself out of it a thousands times. You know, ‘everyone should just go to the New York one because it’s better’ or ‘I’m not good enough’. Maybe it’s too hot, too rainy. There’s a lot of reasons why I shouldn’t do it, but once you do you never know who you’re going to meet or what you’re going to hear. I’ll find a guy or a girl and I’ll be lifted. I’ll be like I’m so glad I got to hear their story and get a chance to share it.”
That being said, he’s not particularly interested in idle chatter.
“What I love is deep, one-on-one conversations. That way you skip all the small talk. You skip right to ‘what’re you struggling with?’ ‘What’s going on?’, you know? The real stuff.”
Oakley has a number of pre-prepared questions he uses to try to inspire a unique response from his subjects, but at times it’s difficult.
“The worst is when someone hesitantly says yes. So I take their photo but the interview won’t go well because they’re not open. They don’t know what’s going on. They want to understand why it’s okay to trust this stranger with a camera,” he said.
He’s also faced a number of rejections.
“There are so many interesting people I’ve asked and then they hear the word Facebook and go ‘no, no, no’,” he said, with a shrug. “It sucks because I look at them and go ‘I want to know what your story is’.”
One of Oakley’s favourite portraits was of Dougie Bear Wears in December 2013. The Nelson local is well known for his flamboyant dressing style, which includes multicoloured pieces of fabric he’s sewn together.
“We started talking and he told me he’d been super sad and depressed. He got this inclination to start sewing and he felt he was expressing his grief and sadness over his sister’s death through this clothing. Now he wears this stuff with pride, which is so cool. I mean, he’s wearing the rainbow. What’s not to love?” Oakley said.
“Now whenever I see him in the street we high five, I ask him how business is.”
Oakley said he can never guess which portraits will resonate, and which will fly under the radar.
“I had this smiling happy guy the other day, he went viral. Seemed really simple, it had a simple message and it just took off. I think partly it was he’s known and liked in town. People like to like that stuff. But some of the darker type images and profiles, they’re definitely part of the collection, but people don’t like to like them as much,” he said.
Oakley said he’s surprised by how many of his fans reside elsewhere.
“Starting out I thought it would only have appeal to people who live here now, but what I’ve found is that most of the uber-fans, the ones who comment regularly and send me messages, they’re out-of-towners,” he said. “I guess for them it reminds them of home, or of where they want to be. I love that I get to be a part of that.”
And, of course, he considers it a way to express his pride in our mountain town.
“The fact that it’s Nelson, and it’s known for these eclectic characters and it’s got its own pride like New York does, that helps,” he said.
For the Humans of Nelson book project, Oakley has teamed up with designer Steven Cretney and author Anne DeGrace, who will help bring the project to fruition.
He’s attempting to raise $10,000 by August 23. One dollar from every book sold will benefit local charities, and the book will launch this fall in a multimedia event at the Nelson Civic Theatre.
For more information visit humansofnelsonbc.ca