The new website Chicago Reframed has several superficial similarities to the widely beloved and widely imitated Humans of New York. Both sites feature photos of ordinary people out on city streets, accompanied by snippets of interviews where they talk about their life stories or their feelings at that particular moment. But you’d be mistaken if you dismissed it as another effort by Chicagoans to be more like New Yorkers.
“[Chicago Reframed] is more personalized for our city,” says Oak Thitayarak, one of the two photographers who works on the project. “We’ve got a different history. We want to get right down to the soul of Chicagoans, as opposed to a more general message.”
Chicago Reframed launched earlier this week. It’s edited by three journalists who work for Tribune Broadcasting, but the bulk of the work is done by photographers Thitayarak and Sophia Nahli Allison. Both were recruited about a month ago and have been working for three weeks, three days a week. Thitayarak usually spends two days a week in the Loop and another day in a neighborhood on the north side. He’s a northsider born and raised, while Allison comes from the south side; for now, they plan to stick to the half of the city where they feel most comfortable and where they know the spots where they’re most likely to find subjects. (And, more prosaically, where to park their cars without getting ticketed.)
“The Loop is common ground,” Thitayarak says. “People work in the Loop. But they live and buy their groceries and walk their dogs in the neighborhoods. That’s the pulse of Chicago.”
The process of finding subjects, Thitayarak says, “is hit or miss. The first few days I was racking them up quickly, five a day, but now it’s two a day, or three a day.” His goal is between seven and ten per week.
Thitayarak has been a street photographer for eight years. He’s primarily been influenced not by Humans of New York but by the work of Vivian Maier who was, as he points out, a Chicagoan. Consequently, right now he’s more comfortable with the photography part than with the interviewing part. “I’m not that type of extrovert,” he says, “jumping into people’s lives.”
His process is fairly simple. “I’m strict on choosing types,” he says. “Not everyone fits.” And not everyone likes having their picture taken. He doesn’t have a set series of questions. Instead he’ll ask about a certain feature, such as a tattoo, that caught his attention, or he’ll ask how they fit into the city and how they feel about it. These conversations usually last between two and five minutes, depending on how chatty the subject is. Thitayarak records them on his phone, looking for a short 30-second soundbite that he can feature on the site. Then he does a quick photo shoot, which takes another five minutes. The idea is to get the subjects to look natural, as much like themselves as possible.
Although Chicago Reframed is still very new, Thitayarak is confident that it will go on for quite a while. “The only thing that can hold us back is the weather,” he says. “What do we do during the next polar vortex? Will people still want to stand outside and talk to me?”