A bicycle zips by in traffic. A bus roars past on the street. An airplane zooms overhead.
People are on the move. Ever wonder where they're going? Where they've been?
Heather and Jameson Hooton asked those very questions. During the month of July, the Omaha-based husband and wife photographers rode Omaha buses throughout the metropolitan area, interviewing and photographing passengers on their way to work, back home, on errands.
Poet and author Sarah McKinstry-Brown, also an Omahan, transcribed the interviews they recorded. She mined them for conversational gems and forged them into a story.
On Friday, “Conversations on a Bus” — a photo essay project that's part art and part anthropology — goes on display in a gallery opening at Metro bus headquarters, 2222 Cuming St. The opening, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., is free and open to the public.
The show will feature photographs of 20 of the 29 people interviewed for the project. A book available for sale will include 23 portraits as well as additional photos. The show will stay at Metro for about a month. Then the project about travel will move to Bellevue University in October and to the RNG Gallery in Council Bluffs in February.
The Omaha Creative Institute, with funding from the Nebraska Arts Council and the Nebraska Humanities Council, coordinated the project.
Susan Thomas, the institute's executive director, said the project “produced a great set of images that tell a story and connect viewers with issues that matter in our city.”
Indeed, the project comes at a time when public transportation is a topic of conversation in the community. With gas prices up, the economy still sluggish and environmental concerns weighing in, Metro's ridership is up and area officials are studying ways to make the bus system accessible to more people.
Linda Barritt, Metro's marketing director, said Metro appreciates being part of the arts community. In larger urban areas, mass transit — think New York City's subways, San Francisco's street cars — is part of the culture.
“They'll be able to document that our ridership covers the demographics of the city,” she said. “It sort of takes your breath away. There are so many interesting people out there.”
The Hootons, in fact, had never ridden the bus in Omaha before they started the project. They'd heard some complaints and had expected some inefficiency.
But Heather Hooton said they emerged thinking the bus system was doing a great job. Being out meeting and interviewing passengers left them “excited and energized” and “addicted to people.” They missed their rides when the project ended.
They also talked before they got started about whether they could be unbiased in their selection of subjects.
The Hootons, both 26 and photographers, have been married and running their own business, Hooton Images, for two years. They look for things that are striking and interesting. And people have to be relatively extroverted to open themselves up on a place as public as a bus.
“I think we were as objective as we could be,” she said.
The Hootons and McKinstry-Brown, known outside her writing career as Sarah Mason, also mulled how deep the conversations could go in what really was a snapshot in time.
In their “Conversations on a Bus” blog, the Hootons quoted McKinstry-Brown's take: “We often think that we're going to have these deep, meaningful exchanges that will change the world. But maybe the important thing is just to have an exchange.”
They had challenges, of course. Photographing people in the confines of a moving bus can be tricky. They missed a few buses. And not everyone wanted to talk.
“People do not like to be interviewed in the morning,” Heather said.
They met plenty of interesting people along the way. The first woman they met at a stop near their home helped them navigate the bus system on their first ride. They had a great interview with a mom whose young son translated the entire conversation. And they encountered similarities among different people. A man close to retirement and a man in his 20s both were interested in photographing people at leisure. The older man planned to take classes, while the younger planned to go it on his own.
Jesse Ugalde, whose photograph is featured in the show, talked of his travels and what he'd learned. His father had been in the military. Ugalde had visited at least 42 countries. “And you find out that everyone in the whole world is the same,” he said. “They really are the same. They might have different ways of communicating, their language might be different, but if you always respect them, give them a smile here and there, you don't have any problems.”
Some conversations did go deep. One woman, a mom, initially told the Hootons that she was out running errands. After a few minutes, she acknowledged that she was out looking for a job. She talked about the difficulties she faced.
“It was one of our better interviews,” James said.
Indeed, they'd like to see the conversations continue through the project blog and social media, which is another side of the project. The interview subjects all have been invited to the opening. Those featured in the show were sent a copy of their portraits. And the Hootons are open to expanding the project to other cities.
For now, though, they hope people will take away from the show the notion of just how connected people are and to encourage them to reach out and find those ties, even if it's just making conversation on a bus.
“It's about the people's journey,” Heather Hooton said, “but it's also the viewer's journey.”
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