In May of 2015, photographer Joe Rubino took his camera to the streets and began photographing people he encountered in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. In the resulting social media project called “Close Up Baltimore,” which includes Facebook and Twitter sites, Rubino is sharing not only the images of Baltimoreans but also their personal stories, which range from funny and quirky to serious or startling. In the captions that accompany each photo, Rubino lets those photographed speak for themselves on the topics that are the most important to them–neighbors, friends, heroes, and heartache.
For Proximity’s ninth issue, Rubino has shared a selection of images that relate to this issue’s home theme. And he also took some time to share a bit of the story behind these stories in an interview with editor Traci Macnamara:
TM: What inspired you to begin sharing portraits and personal stories with Close Up Baltimore, and how has this project evolved since its beginnings?
JR: After the uprising following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, a local foundation got in touch with me and asked me to duplicate Humans of New York for Baltimore. I’d never done anything like it, so I decided to give it a try. I loved it from the first person I approached.
The project would not have existed had it not been for the uprising, and while we didn’t post the first stories until the middle of July, I began shooting in May, two-and-a-half weeks after the uprising.
The foundation’s objective was to tell stories of “regular people” living their lives in Baltimore, but almost as soon as I started working, people began telling me about their feelings about what happened to Freddie Gray — and what they themselves experienced during the uprising. Their stories were very compelling, so I went to the neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested in order to hear directly from the people there. What I found were people who wanted to talk about the Freddie Gray incident, and about living under crushing pressure of discrimination and poverty.
Those things did not become the sole focus of the project, but they took their place in the story that was being told by the people I encountered.
TM: Do you consider Baltimore your home? If so, what does this city mean to you, personally, as a home?
JR: Yes, Baltimore is my home. This is what that means to me: Baltimore is where I made a life after coming here in my early twenties. It’s where I found a handful of people with whom I formed deep bonds of affection and meaning — people who I care about and who care about me, support me, push me forward, and laugh at my jokes.
Professionally, the multitude of non-profits doing really important work in the city has given me countless opportunities over the years to make brief, sometimes very intense connections with people I never would have met — some of them, I’ll never forget. There have also been so many opportunities to challenge myself both as a photographer and a video producer.
I am really grateful that I found this city.
TM: What are some other insights you’ve gained in talking with the people of Baltimore about how they relate to this city as their home?
JR: I was surprised by the number of people who spontaneously told me how much they cared about the city. What I heard most was that people loved the tremendous diversity of neighborhoods and the thriving, exciting art scene.
TM: Please tell us more about your day-to-day approach to Close Up Baltimore. What’s your process, and how to you fit this project in with your other life and work activities?
JR: Most often, I work between 1 and 2 days a week, which is really all I can devote to it in order to keep up with my other work. Usually, I pick a neighborhood, park my car and then start walking, looking for someone who catches my eye and looks approachable — or looking for the kind of light that would allow me to make a beautiful photograph.
Sometimes it takes a half hour to find even one person. It’s a very inefficient process. And after doing 200 of these, it’s still not fun to be turned down. So far I’ve been to more than thirty neighborhoods. I’ve spent time in many parts of the city I’d never gone to before.
TM: As a photographer, how has this project influenced the way you relate to people you photograph and to your other work as a photographer?
JR: It’s certainly made me more comfortable with people. As the project has gone on, I find that I am able to relax and take my time instead of feeling that I have to hurry because I’m imposing on people. Most people make me feel that they have all the time I need — they tell me that. So this has spilled over a bit into my other work, as well. I’m a little more willing to enter into a real conversation with people that I’m photographing and to pursue that conversation longer than I used to. I allow myself to enjoy that.
TM: What are some of the most important things you’ll take away from this project, and do you have advice for other writers or photographers who would like to take on a project like this one?
JR: The project has been a great lesson and a great thrill and I’ll always feel lucky that it came to me. I am enormously grateful to each person who tells me their story, because they are giving me, a stranger, a part of their life. I think it’s very, very difficult to change your deepest set of convictions about the world and other people. But I do believe it’s possible to have experiences that pierce the crust — or the protective membrane we all live in — and for just few minutes to see something new, someone new.
Another thing this project did for me was give me the idea — and the courage — to begin making a film about the issue of race in Baltimore. Speaking with some of the people I met, seeing some of the things I saw, made me more angry about inequality and injustice in the city. The film will be centered on interviews with 100 people of a wide range of ages and economic classes. I’m about a third of the way through the interviews and they’re incredible — which is to say, they’re intense, powerful, moving, and best of all, surprising.
As far as giving advice to other photographers or writers who want to do something like Close Up, I can only say what I was told many times and what I still tell myself: get out and do it.
Click here to get up close with Joe Rubino’s Close Up Baltimore images and inside the story behind each.
After graduate school in creative writing, JOE RUBINO became a freelance writer and a photographer. In the last fifteen years, while continuing to do photography, he has shifted the primary focus of his work to producing videos for non-profits, foundations, and schools in Baltimore and throughout the United States. @closeupbmore