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Face to Face with Strangers in Downtown Pittsburgh

I’ve always had a fascination with people and their expressions. The look on someone’s face can almost immediately tell you what type of mood they’re in, what they’re feeling, and sometimes even what they’re thinking. When I moved to Pittsburgh four years ago to work as a bike messenger, I started using my iPhone to take photographs downtown. At first, I photographed mostly buildings and landscapes. But over time I began to notice the different people wandering the streets, people that I wanted to photograph. It took a few years before I was able to muster up the courage to ask someone for a portrait, but I’m glad that I did. What had started as a hobby quickly became part of my daily routine.

Today I take portraits after work and on the weekends, when the streets of downtown are alive. When I first started it was unclear the direction I wanted to go with my portraits, I just knew that I enjoyed being downtown amid the noise and the traffic and the bustle. Over time, however, shooting photographs, meeting people, and wandering the streets eventually transformed into an ongoing project called Nearsighted. It focuses on portraits of strangers in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh is a fascinating city, one brimming with unforgettable people and stories. Though long associated with its blue-collar identity, the city’s industrial past has slowly become a distant dream. Today it’s more of a white-collar town where technology, higher education, and medical interests dominate the economic landscape, and where cultural reinvention is ongoing. Even looking back four years ago to when I first moved here, the city has changed dramatically. My goal, as a photographer, is to document the people who make Pittsburgh what it is, and there’s no better place to do that than on the streets of downtown. In a way, the photographs I take remind me of my hometown of Butler, Pennsylvania, where the steel industry was once the largest employer. There are parallels between the two, a shared history, and the people are familiar in a way that makes me nostalgic.

When I wander the streets of Downtown Pittsburgh, I’m often drawn to people who are ignored or often looked down on in society—those who fall between the cracks. I feel a certain kinship with them. I never ask subjects to pose, and I try not to say much until after a photograph is taken. That’s because I want that person to have the same expression on their face as when I first noticed them. I’m always in search of a person whose face tells a story.

On the street, I’ve met some of the kindest people and also some of the toughest. I’ve heard sad stories, been punched in the chest, hugged, screamed at, offered drugs, and have even managed to make a few friends. I love the excitement and fear of initially walking up to a stranger and asking to take their picture. It’s important for me to capture the true, raw essence of the streets because that is the way I see Pittsburgh. The city is always changing. People come and people go. This is my way of stopping time, exploring expressions, feelings, and the people in my surroundings.

Photo Essay is an ongoing series featuring documentary images that examine the social, cultural, and political landscape in Pittsburgh and beyond.