We all know that Nelson is full of colourful characters — it’s a perfect place for a photo series like Ryan Oakley’s “Humans of Nelson BC.”
Inspired by the popular “Humans of New York” project that photographer Brandon Stanton started in 2010, Oakley wanders around Nelson with a pocket-size digital camera and notebook asking people if he can take pictures of them.
“The first person I ever asked said, ‘no.’ If the second person hadn’t said ‘yes,’ I may have just given up,” laughs Oakley. “It’s a scary thing for me to walk up to a stranger and ask to take their picture.”
He posts the photos, along with an anecdote about each person or a few sentences from a conversation he had with them, on a Facebook page he set up for the project. In the month-and-a-half since he started, the page has collected more than 1,500 Facebook likes.
“It’s good motivation to keep doing it,” he says of his following. “I need the pressure to make me keep confronting my fear of walking up to people.”
Oakley’s goal is to post at least one portrait everyday until he reaches 1,000 photos — then he’ll reevaluate. The 35-year-old father of two young kids isn’t sure it’s something he’ll continue indefinitely, but right now he’s loving the opportunity to meet and talk to so many interesting people.
“More than anything when I’m looking for somebody to photograph, I look for someone who looks willing to talk,” he says.
There’s some people he’s photographed who end up talking with him for more than an hour. He’s heard some deeply personal stories, including some he’s chosen not to share online.
“I think it’s liberating for some people, when I take their photo and listen to their story,” he says.
Of course, some folks talk more than others. There’s some photos of people he spent less than a minute with. And about one in 10 people turn down his request to photograph them all together (the photographer in New York has said in interviews that he gets turned down by about one in three people).
“I don’t take it personally when they say ‘no.’ They’re usually in a rush or don’t like having their photo taken,” he says. “I don’t like having my photo taken either.”
Oakley credits the project for rekindling his love of photography. After years of running his own part-time photo business, he’d begun to see his camera as a job rather than a source of pleasure. Then, this past August, he dropped his professional DSLR camera on the ferry deck, smashing it beyond repair.
“It was almost a blessing. I hated carrying around that big, heavy camera,” Oakley says.
He decided to replace it with something smaller — a simple Olympus OM-D with interchangeable lens and the look of a classic film camera.
Now Oakley takes photos nearly every day, often during his lunch break from his day job as a highway engineer for the Ministry of Transportation — you’ll notice a frequent backdrop are the buildings along Ward Street because he’s often walking from the White building to Oso Negro, his favourite coffee spot.
He’s managed to build up a stockpile of images to release over time. He’s also made a point of not taking requests from people who want to be photographed — they can hire their own photographer for that.
The Humans series is about honestly reflecting the community, Oakley says, “it’s not about taking really nice pictures or people looking really good.”
Another way he tries to keep the project authentic is by not profiting financially from it. He welcomes people to share his photos freely on social media and money he makes selling prints goes directly to charity.