St. Louis photographer Lindy Drew spends her days talking to strangers.
If they’re up for it, Drew asks questions like, “What’s the nicest thing anyone has said to you lately?” before asking to take their picture. If you’re on Facebook, you’ve probably seen her project: Humans of St. Louis, also known as HOSTL (pronounced “hostile”).
“I know; it’s ironic, because we’re anything but hostile,” Drew said.
For now, the Facebook page is just a hobby. But the Washington University graduate student wants to turn it into a job, allowing the photos and stories she finds to spark conversations about romance, religion and racism among a wider circle of people.
“We’ll see how far HOSTL can go,” Drew said.
‘I want to feel chills'
On a recent sunny afternoon, Drew hit the streets of north St. Louis, starting on Grand Boulevard in front of Saint John's United Church of Christ and heading south, toward Natural Bridge Avenue.
Along the way, she met 59-year-old Ryan Calmese, whose T-shirt read, "Nice opinion — too bad it's wrong."
Calmese had plenty to say about what’s right and wrong in today’s world, about parenting, about living in St. Louis and about the ubiquity of mobile devices.
“These folks with these cell phones, I mean it’s ridiculous,” he said. “You would think they were born with a cell phone in their ear.”
Calmese and Drew talked for about 15 minutes. But she wasn’t quite sure whether the interview would make it as a Humans of St. Louis profile.
“I want to feel chills. I want to feel my heart skip a beat,” Drew said. “I have to go back and listen to the tape but my first reaction is, in the moment, I didn’t feel that.”
She would find that later, on a street off of North Grand, in a conversation with Jon Price. Price, who was sitting in a folding chair set up in the street, was more than willing to talk. Drew asked him about his talents. He said he remodels houses and replaces front brakes.
"And I went to cosmetology school because I have three daughters,” Price said. “I still press their hair and curl it when they need it. And they’re 27, 22, and I have an 11-year-old.”
Price’s reply made Drew's heart skip a beat. The chills she looks for came when he told her about being shot five times, once in the head.
"[It was] over there by Blewett Middle School,” Price said. “They just got to shooting, all at once. I didn’t have no idea they was arguing. [I was at the] wrong place at the wrong time.”
Price laughed off his brush with death.
“The craziest part was when they was taking the bullet out of my head,” he said. “The doctor said, ‘You’ve got a hard head.’”
But with just a few words, he had focused attention on a very important local issue — public safety. Drew knew his story was going on Facebook.
“And now, let’s let the conversation happen,” she said.
Where conversations begin
Almost from the beginning, Humans of St. Louis has been a place for discussions about the difficulties facing the St. Louis region.
Drew and her friend Caroline Fish started Humans of St. Louis in 2014, naming it after the Humans of New York project. Only a few months later, Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer. In Ferguson and throughout St. Louis, Drew asked people about the tragedy and its aftermath. The photos and stories she posted on Facebook prompted heated debates in the comments.
"That was the first time we realized, 'Wow, we need to keep going with the project,'” Drew said.
Ferguson certainly boosted HOSTL's social media presence. In August 2014, the Facebook page had around 14,000 "likes," a number that's now up to more than 67,000.
But social media stats aren’t the point, according to Drew. The goal is getting people to communicate, to "start the conversation at the dinner table or with your family and friends about a topic that you wouldn’t normally talk about," she said.
To keep the conversations going, and to expand the discussion, Drew, Fish and newer partner Dessa Somerside want to turn Humans of St. Louis into a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. A crowdfunding campaign and a photo exhibition that opened Friday will help with publicity and the cost of launching the non-profit.
Right now Drew's busy finishing a master’s degree program in social work and public health at Washington University. So she’s still figuring out what a more permanent version of Humans of St. Louis would actually look like.
“I don’t have answers but if someone has creative ideas, let’s explore that," she said.
Her own ideas include hiring more photographers, and holding photography classes for kids and teens. If HOSTL was her job, she'd have more time to make connections that would open up collaboration with other non-profits and give the HOSTL community on Facebook more ways to interact in real life.
“There’s people who see posts of people and they say ‘how can we help this person. Give me a contact, we want to reach out,'" Drew said.
Regardless of what it looks like, Drew said, she's proud of what HOSTL has accomplished.
"We've created one more way in St. Louis for people who care about St. Louis, who are invested in St. Louis, who are curious about St. Louis to have these really rich conversations," she said.
A funded HOSTL would also further embed Drew, an Arizona native, into the St. Louis community.
“When I moved here I did not think I’d be there longer than I was signed up for school. This project, the current events and the people sucked me in," she said said.
The Humans of St. Louis art exhibition runs through May 31 at the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group headquarters, 2700 N. 14th St. This photo is among those in the exhibition.
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL