On September 24th 2014, I started walking around Denver with my camera. I didn’t really know where I was going. I was new to Denver and just wanted to get to know the city better through its people.
I walked down the 16th Street Mall, through Confluence and Riverfront Parks, around Union Station and its neighboring Light Rail stop, and up into the Highlands all the way to Federal Boulevard. I met some of the craziest, coolest, and, more than anything, most sincere people I’ve ever met. I took their pictures and talked with them. What brought them to this part of Denver? What brought them to Denver in general? The conversations would take off from there. Sometimes we talked for thirty seconds. Other times we talked for an hour.
“I had no mom. I had no pops. I just have Big Will here. That’s all I need.”
“We choose to be happy. We choose whether our thoughts are mostly happy or not.”
“This guy here? Made it myself. Three squirrels and a skunk. It’s never smelled very good, but it’s my lucky hat for playing chess. I haven’t lost when I’ve worn it since 2002.”
“We came here in June for a funeral in the family and ended up staying in Colorado. Then my husband got a heart attack and lost his job, and we’ve been homeless and living in this park for almost a month. It’s taught me that there’s always chaos–it’s just a matter of how you handle it. There’s always tremendous growth from heartbreak.”
I approached almost anyone I saw, though I gravitated towards people sitting by themselves. People who were walking by usually didn’t have the time for a picture. People in larger groups often were too self-conscious. I would spot someone sitting on their own—maybe waiting for a bus or a friend—and ask if I could take their picture.
Between September 24th and June 16th, I took 2,614 different people’s pictures. For every one person whose picture I took, there were probably another two or three who didn’t want their picture taken by some random guy. Some people were in a rush to work. Some people claimed not to be photogenic. Some people just shook their heads when I approached them. You’ll get those people anywhere, but I think Denver has fewer than most cities. It’s really a very warm, friendly place.
“I came in fourth today in bowling for Special Olympics Colorado. Fourth! In Colorado!”
“I get more homework in second grade, but it’s always fun when I visit my grandma and aunties.”
“Learning English: not easy. Being woman in Afghanistan: not easy. Being in America: easy and beautiful.”
“My wife stole some of my ice cream when I went to the bathroom. I just know she did.”
Everyone was wonderfully and brutally honest. Everyone shared something that was genuine to them, to their heart, to what they valued, to what they’ve experienced. I’ve continued to be floored by just how honest these strangers were. What is it about talking to strangers than lets you open up so much? What is it about talking to a random dude with a camera that allows you to shed light on your darkest vulnerabilities and anxieties? I still don’t totally know.
What I do know, though, is the impact these photos had on me. Talking to these folks was meditative. It allowed me to be supremely present and more mindfully aware and still than I’ve ever been. It made me a better listener. It reminded me where my best creativity comes from: often in new environments, always with outside inspiration, and always with a patient incubation period. It might feel like there’s a clear A-HA! moment for an idea, but getting there takes time–time spent (curiously) wandering and observing and consistently working on stuff that feels like play. You really don’t need to know where it’s going (whatever “it” is). You just need to start.
I heard their stories and became attached to these people. Their words stuck with me. I saw them days and weeks and months after we first met—sometimes in completely different parts of the city—and took new pictures and had new conversations. We’re always growing. We always have new stories to tell. When we’re engrossed in conversation, all the peripheral bullshit in our minds fades away. It fades way even faster when we hear others’ heartbreaks or greatest joys.
“We’re sisters. Well, it feels like we’re sisters. We’re sisters-in-law. We talk on the phone almost every day even though we live close to each other. We can’t jitter bug quite like we used to, though.”
“We’ve both been widowed for a few years now. It was four years in December for me.”
“It’ll be six years in June for me. I just lost my youngest son, too. I have six children. I’ll never say I have five children just because my youngest boy isn’t with us anymore. I’ll always have six, wonderful kids. They’re always with me.”
“Family is always with you. And so are friends who feel like family.”
“It’s fun to ride your scooter when it’s fun.”
“I’m a 30-year-old orphan. The world is my parents. I’m constantly moving and become more spiritual wherever I am. I’ve gotten great at trusting my heart. That’s all you need. Your heart is the wisest, most truthful thing we own.”
“I knew from a very early age. I’d secretly wear my mom’s clothes starting at about age 11. I always knew deep down I was a girl. But coming out was never really an option. I grew up in Greeley where they’re not as open to LGBQT issues as here in Denver. I worked for my parent’s rug-cleaining company and was always under their roof. They always just thought I was gay and didn’t want to talk about it. Then, about two and half years ago, my mom said, ‘We need to have a talk.’ And just like that–I decided I was gonna come out and beat her to the punch. She was genuinely speechless. My parents and so many people just don’t know anything about being transgendered. I wish I’d come out 15 years earlier, not when I was 36 and 10 years deep in alcoholism. I’d drink a pint of Vodka by myself almost every day. I’d go to Walmart in the middle of the night at around 2, 3 in the morning to buy cheap dresses and wigs and drive by myself along some back roads in peace. I got 2 DUIs. The second time, I went to county jail–in my dress and everything–and my parents didn’t want to pay my bail. They wanted me to think about things. I was there for 39 days, and I never plan on going back. My therapist is in Denver, so I moved here about a month after I came out and have been in a women’s shelter for about a year. I love my mom. She’s one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. She’s so much more understanding about my situation now. I’ll always love my mom. This is who I am. I’ve been doing hormone therapy for almost a year now, and it’s really making me feel more at ease. This is who I’ve always been.”
I wanted to use my camera as an excuse to hear people’s stories, listen, and relate. I wanted to stop and meet all the people I’d usually walk by without approaching. I wanted to create an environment where strangers could open up to another stranger.
* * * *
Denver is 5,280 feet above sea level. It’s home to 649, 495 folks. In October 2014, I wanted to take 5,280 different people’s pictures in honor of the city’s altitude; a few weeks later, I thought 528OF Denver was a more reasonable goal.
Of the 2,614 different people whose pictures I took, I chose 5280F the most honest, biggest characters to be on 5280FDenver.Tumblr.Com. Of those 528, I chose 32 of my favorite to be in the book I made. I included all walks of life on the website, but I leaned towards some of the more life-affirming, compassionate, lighthearted ones for the book. I wanted to celebrate the people who made me laugh and cry, the people who reminded me how interconnected we all are and how we all have our battles, but we also all have hope and each other.
I started this project shortly after I got to Denver and finished days before I moved back to Boston. Every day was new. Every day was exhausting in the best way. Every day reminded me how much we gain from listening to others.
Big Will (right) and Bigger Will (left) take on the 16th Street Mall.
“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”–Mary Oliver
“The not-knowing is crucial to art. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no direction.” –Donald Barthelme