Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday August 27th 2014

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Meet The People of Pensacola
by Sarah McCartan

Dancers.
Veterans.
Police officers.
Heroes.
Homeless.
Gospel singers.
Natives.
Immigrants.
Those who seem to have it all.
Those who may have lost it all.
They are “The People of Pensacola.”

What started out as a simple Facebook page created with the intention of remaining small in scale and being shared amongst friends has erupted into a bustling social community, gaining more than 3,000 followers in just over a month.

The idea is simple: sharing street portraits along with honest and simple stories from the people of Pensacola.

“I expected it to be a project my close friends would be interested in,” said the founder of The People of Pensacola (POP) Facebook page. “When it spread so fast, I was quite taken aback.
Now I run into people on the street and people ask me [when they see my camera], ‘Are you the People of Pensacola guy?’”

Although familiar with larger scale, well-established projects in bigger cities throughout the country, from the very beginning the idea of POP was to dig below the surface of the exterior.

“[If you look around] there are a number of pages like this around the country. I don’t know if there are any more original ideas,” he said with a laugh. “I saw Humans of New York at the beginning when it was just photographs. Then I noticed around the time I became interested in doing this, he began doing questions. I wanted to go a little bit deeper, get a bit more personal and try and get actual stories and bios from people —something that takes me beyond the surface of the photos and makes the photos more interesting.”

POP includes photos and excerpts from a diverse mix of people who are part of our community. People who have stories to tell that uplift, inspire or perhaps challenge us with heightened perspective. People we pass by every single day. People that remind us we are all part of the human experience and have commonalities in battles and triumphs we face that speak to the human condition.

The individuals featured are primarily found around the downtown area, discovered by simply walking and talking throughout the day.

“I typically stay downtown. Downtown is so walkable and pedestrian friendly, it makes it easier for me,” he said, as he rattled off places he frequents, including Palafox corridor, DeLuna Plaza and Maritime and Veterans parks.

“I walk and look for people who have an interesting look about them.”

Each approach typically begins with a simple question:

“Do you mind if I take a photo of you?” he asks politely.

“I make it about them and not as though I am looking to gain anything. You have to approach it cautiously,” he explained. “I ask if I can take their photo, and 90 percent of the time they are fine with it. From there I strike up a conversation,  ‘Are you from here?’ Then I segue into other key questions.”

What are these key questions?

A few prime questions that typically come into play and get the conversations flowing include:

What’s the most interesting thing that’s happened in your life?

What struggles are you facing?

While the struggles certainly vary from person to person, there are common struggles amongst the homeless population that rise to the surface, including the basic needs of survival. The posts featuring members of Pensacola’s homeless population have garnered an especially powerful response on the page.

“What I’ve noticed — on the homeless posts — there are so many people who have emailed me that want to help. It’s created a reaction. There are folks out there who are hurting, who are hungry and all these people are very willing to help.”

Several of these homeless parties he has kept in contact with reside at Wayside Park. Based on the response from the page he has returned to speak with them again, and worked with those who desire to offer assistance.

Still, those featured are certainly not limited to the homeless population. The page includes individuals from all walks of life, including plenty who have years and years of stories to tell, or “lifetimes of walking history,” as the founder explained.

Although from the page it appears many are willing to open up, that’s not always the case. And not everyone has a story to tell.
“I talk to a large number of people every day. Not everyone has a story and is willing to open up quite as much. Some don’t open up at all, past a photo. Other won’t offer even that,” he said.

”It’s an exercise in resilience. Some shrug me off. They may be having a bad day or don’t want to talk to anyone right now. I just keep on going and move to next person.”

What keeps him doing the project? On top of finding the stories and the 3,000 fans, he finds the experience uplifting.

“I find it absolutely fascinating and fun. It’s an exercise in patience — no question about that — but a fun challenge.”

While the project is based around “street” stories, there has been such a response that only time will tell how the project will continue to grow and morph.

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