'Close Up Baltimore' Tells Stories Of The City, One Portrait At A Time

Jul 23, 2015
Originally published on July 23, 2015 12:50 pm

It's a muggy summer day, and Joe Rubino is at the train station in Baltimore, taking pictures of a stranger and asking some deeply personal questions. Later, he'll post this portrait online, along with snippets from the conversation.

"I think that people are hungry for a more real, emotional connection to people," Rubino says.

His street photography project, Close Up Baltimore, was inspired by photographer Brandon Stanton's Humans of New York blog.

Rubino, who has lived in Baltimore for decades, has spent his professional life doing photo and video work for nonprofit groups in the city. In April, when riots erupted in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, he watched the news coverage, disturbed by the images of his city. It was particularly painful, he says, because "we know how many people in those neighborhoods are working very hard to just create decent lives and opportunity."

A friend who'd been following the Humans of New York blog for years got in touch with Rubino. "She said: You need to do something like this," he recalls. He told her he wasn't sure he was the right person to do it, but that he'd give it a try anyway.

So, for the past two months, he's been wandering around Baltimore, taking pictures and talking to people. "We wanted to show real people in Baltimore, doing real things, just having lives of meaning," he says.

The project went public last week. The Facebook page and Twitter feed feature brightly lit, closeup portraits. In one, a father boasts about his daughter's straight A's. In another, a young woman describes the backhanded compliments she receives about the color of her skin.

"We make snap judgments about people, but that snap judgment we make is a blunt instrument — it cuts out so much of what's good," Rubino says.

His goal is to make 200 portraits — closeup stories that create a more complete picture of a complicated city.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Residents of Baltimore would like you to see their city differently. Baltimore made news this year for the riots that followed the death of an unarmed black man after his arrest by police. Now Baltimoreans are adding their own different stories.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm a painter. I'm an artist, and I'm a recovering crack addict.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm pretty much, like, a self-explanation for fun.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I wanted to be an inventor my entire life. And you're an outcast as an entrepreneur until you're successful.

INSKEEP: An artist is gathering the stories and portraits of Baltimore residents, inspired by a similar project called Humans of New York. This project is Close Up Baltimore, and NPR's Lauren Migaki has the story.

JOE RUBINO: That's it, look right at me...

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMERA CLICKING)

RUBINO: ...Perfect.

LAUREN MIGAKI, BYLINE: It's a muggy summer day, and Joe Rubino is at the train station, taking pictures of a stranger and asking some personal questions.

RUBINO: Tell me the saddest thing that ever happened to you in your life.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I guess just dealing with being sort of, like, abandoned by my father and then my stepfather.

MIGAKI: And, she tells him, she's getting married next month. She signs a photo release and gets on the next train. The photographer, Joe Rubino, has lived in Baltimore for decades, but he's only just started asking strangers about their lives.

RUBINO: I think that people are hungry for a more real emotional connection to people.

MIGAKI: Rubino has spent his professional life doing photo and video work for nonprofits in the city. In April, when riots erupted in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, he watched the news coverage, horrified at the images of his city.

RUBINO: To see what was happening after all the work has been done - because we know how many people in those neighborhoods are working very hard to just create decent lives and opportunity.

MIGAKI: A friend got in touch with Rubino. She'd been following the Humans of New York blog for years.

RUBINO: She said you need to do something like this. I told her I wasn't sure I was the right person to do it and that I would try it.

MIGAKI: So for the last two months, he's been wandering around Baltimore taking pictures and talking to people.

RUBINO: Real people in Baltimore, doing real things, just having lives of meaning.

MIGAKI: The project went public last week. The Facebook page features brightly lit close-up portraits. In one, a father brags about his daughter's straight A's. In another, a young woman complains about the backhanded compliments she receives about her dark skin.

RUBINO: Can I take your picture and ask you a couple of questions?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah. Do I look disgusting?

RUBINO: No, I love your T-shirt.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Oh, thank you.

RUBINO: We make snap judgments about people, but that snap judgment that we make is a very blunt instrument. It cuts out so much of what's good.

MIGAKI: Rubino's goal is to make 200 portraits, 200 stories to paint a more complete picture of a complicated city. Lauren Migaki, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.