Equipped only with her camera and notebook, Durango-based grad student Ashley Merchant sets out and uses photography as a platform to carry out her passion.
Humans of Durango, Merchant’s current photography project, addresses disconnection and loneliness head on. While out and about scouting for photo subjects, Merchant will randomly pick strangers to photograph and interview. Through the simplicity of photography, Merchant is capturing the people of Durango at their most vulnerable, jubilant and uncertain times. By asking deeper questions, no more “How are you doing” or “What’s up?” Merchant is, in essence, reintroducing us to people we thought we knew.DGO caught up with Merchant, and asked her what inspires this quest for connection, especially in little ol’ Durango.
How did Humans of Durango get started?
Ashley Merchant: I noticed I started taking pictures of people that were in different places and got really interested in their story. It’s just something that I found that I enjoyed and I just felt more connected when I was using photography in that way. I saw Humans of New York. My friend pointed it out to me and I was like, ‘Oh this is cool; this is kind of like what I was doing when I was traveling except this is way more cool than what I was doing.’ So I thought about it, and I was like, ‘I wonder if anyone has done that for Durango,’ I was looking it up and didn’t find anything.
We have ideas about people, and until you actually talk to them and ask them more personal stories, like, ‘Hey what makes you happy?’ ‘What’s the hardest thing you’ve dealt with?’ Those questions help you really get to know someone. It helped me feel more connected to people. So bringing that to social media where other people can see that, too, it helps us as a community to feel more connected.”
Has taking photos of strangers taught you that first impressions can be false?
AM: Part of it was breaking perceptions. As human nature, we have a tendency to do that, place judgements or certain perceptions we have on people based on just how they look. I try to have a nonjudgemental attitude in general, but I think one of the ways to be more authentic is by actually asking people questions where they identify themselves, and you’re not doing it for them.
What about the medium of photography continues to inspire you?
AM: I just had a conversation with you and asked you these questions where you’re thinking about it and I took a photograph while you’re in thought, in the thought process of it. So, photography is explaining exactly how that person felt at the time when I asked them that question. And maybe they hadn’t even thought about what I asked them in a while, so it feels the most real.
Do you purposefully set out on certain days for Humans of Durango?
AM: Occasionally, if someone really sparks my interest, I’ll definitely go up to them and photograph them. But a lot of times I like to be random about it because I don’t like to be picky and choosy by what I think is interesting. That’s the whole point to it, is breaking perceptions and having compassion for people who are different than us and it’s been really fun because I end up talking to some people maybe I would have never had the opportunity to talk to before, and everybody is so unique and specific, too.”
What are you studying in grad school?
AM: For a master’s in social work. I’m actually interested in social issues and photography, and this kind of spurred my interests into that. Through social work, I think the underlying thing we’re all dealing with for all of our issues is loneliness and connection, and when you feel lonely or disconnected, I think that’s what perpetuates all our health problems and relational problems. I think it’s the foundation for good health and well-being. So that’s part of it, too. If I can use art as a way for people to come together, I think that would be awesome.
Does Humans of Durango fill a void for you?
AM: The things that make us happy are things that make us feel connected. Photography allows you to be super present with people, and I like that. Then, when you’re traveling, too, and especially in meeting new people, that’s also super present-oriented. That’s really important to me, and I like waking people up that way, too, to become more self-aware.
What are some crazy things that have happened from this project?
AM: I think more than anything it’s just broken down those walls we have of this person’s crazy, or this person’s this. I don’t know if anything is really strange because if you actually talk to people and get their story, it all makes sense. It’s not like, well yeah maybe they’re acting strange, right, but that doesn’t mean they are strange. They’re living it. They’re living out their truest self, and I think most of us aren’t, and that’s part of the project, too, I don’t get why we have to be so, like, caged, in ways. I think there’s a lot of people who live in fear of their own self.
Will you carry on the idea of this project and pursue it in different forms?
AM: Yeah I think it’s what perpetuated a lot of other ideas and I’m going to Kenya in the fall, and I might have the opportunity to do a social issues photography project. And I’m going to bring that back here, too, and hopefully other places. I think it’s just a platform for carrying out a passion.
This interview was condensed and lightly edited for clarity.