Meet Ivan Velinov, The Mysterious Man Behind 'Portraits Of Boston'

The prolific photographer on why he doesn't want you to know what he looks like -- and much more.
The prolific photographer on why he doesn't want you to know what he looks like -- and much more.

Ivan Velinov launched his “Portraits of Boston” blog relatively recently, in March 2013. But the idea behind the project wasn’t an entirely new concept for him. “It’s something I’ve done since I was a kid,” he said in a recent interview. “My parents said I would always go outside and pass the time by talking to people.”

When he was in graduate school, Ivan would spend whole days out in the streets with his camera. “I found that I was often spending more time photographing strangers than studying and doing research. And I decided that this is what I really wanted to do with my life and the time was finally here to do it.”

So what is “it”? What is the idea behind “Portraits of Boston”?

On a very basic level, Velinov says, it is individual portraits — stories and photographs — of random people on the streets of Boston. “There’s nothing fancy about it,” he says modestly. “There’s no lofty mission, no artist’s statement. If I have to summarize in one word why I do it, it’s probably awareness. Bringing the awareness that everyone has a story, but also that the story might not be what we think it is. Homeless people are not always drug addicts and alcoholics, for instance. People who are well off can be very nice and humble. I think many of the stories from the blog show exactly that, they are surprising in the way they reveal these unexpected stories.”

Whether it’s the revealing stories or the raw and beautiful photographs they are attached to, “Portraits” has had an undeniable impact. In a little over a year it has 138,000 likes on Facebook and its most popular posts on Tumblr have hundreds of thousands of notes, likes, reblogs and shares.

Ivan keeps details about his own life close to the vest, preferring to let his work speak for itself. (Where did you grow up? “I try to keep that in the bag.”) But his preference for anonymity might be in jeopardy as his work becomes more widely known and celebrated.

We spoke with Ivan Velinov via phone last week. Our conversation, which was lightly edited for space and clarity, follows:

What do you look for when you’re seeking out subjects? What do you say when you stop people on the street? Do you start chatting with them, or ask to take a picture first? How does it usually go?

I find more and more often that it’s something that’s difficult to describe. In the beginning when I started I would look more for “interesting” people, people who looked, somehow, interesting. I think that as the blog evolves I find myself focusing more on the story and the emotional level. Often I look for people who are sitting on a bench by themselves, who might be going through something, feeling a little bad. In terms of how I approach them, I try not to have a formulaic, preconceived approach, with the same standard questions. Just because they’re individuals, they’re all different. I try to “go with the flow.” For example, if someone’s sitting alone, not smiling, being sad, I might say something like, “I noticed how you were listening to music, you were singing to yourself.” Or in another situation, “I noticed you have a very nice smile. Are you having a good day?” And then it starts from there.

Other cities have similar projects, for example, “Humans of New York.” But a notable difference about your blog is that you spend time with people that other sites tend to ignore, like the homeless. What’s your commitment to populations that are sometimes overlooked?

I find myself very drawn to people who are homeless, or people who are struggling, and I have been criticized for that, and I have been urged to continue to do it. It’s important to find a balance between happy stories and sad stories. I myself can only listen to so many sad stories per day. I wouldn’t want to make the blog primarily about homelessness because everyone deserves to have their story told and I don’t want it to be a one-sided project. Some of this draw for me has very personal connections and I’m not sure I’m comfortable yet… I’ve been reluctant to share my story on the blog, which is an awkward feeling because I’ve asked everyone else to share their stories and sometimes people ask me to share mine! I think I eventually will, and it’s kind of hinted here and there. Much of my story is not particularly happy. Some of it relates to homelessness in various ways, to the struggle. I will leave that for the future.

Are you able to make a living doing this?

So far I literally haven’t made a dollar doing this. I’m fortunate to have someone who pays the rent currently. I don’t live in Boston, I live in a much cheaper place, a very small place. I have savings, I live on credit cards. Certainly as much as I don’t want to think about this, I will have to find a way to make it financially sustainable because it’s something I want to do for many years. As long as I can find a way to make just enough so that I can keep doing it, that would make me happy. I’m not quite sure what that would mean. One of my dreams is certainly to have these stories in a book, I think they deserve to be in a more physical form and to be read by a wider audience. A lot of factors will play into this. I try to direct all my energy into talking to people. But sooner or later I’ll have to find a way to direct my energy toward the business aspect.

Your photographs are currently on display at the Piano Craft Gallery in Boston. How did the show come to be?

I was contacted by the gallery. I always thought the blog, the online presence would be the main way to reach people because it’s so immediate, democratic, but when they approached me I didn’t want to say no. Just because I think it’s a more tangible, physical way of experiencing a very small fraction of the stories. I think there are nearly 1500 on the blog and only 30 in the exhibit. I wanted to see what the experience would be like having these in the gallery setting. At the gallery it was nice to meet people who told me they’ve been following the blog since the beginning and always wanted to say hi. But the blog will always remain the main way of sharing these stories. It’s more immediate and interactive.

And as a follow up, you sent us five photos from the show. Can you talk to me briefly about each one of those.

My favorites aren’t necessarily visually or technically the best. Often there’s a sentimental reason. With that in mind, here goes:

1. "This is probably the most memorable conversation I’ve had in my entire life..."

The photo that’s the most famous, the one of the homeless man whose story starts, “Hey man, take my picture…” this is probably the most memorable conversation I’ve had in my entire life, not only in doing this blog. I think it captures much of the spirit of the blog, the unexpectedness of what often happens, the unexpectedness of the story. Asking me to give him a hug, saying “money ain’t everything.” The idea that things are not always what they seem. It captures the way that people often open up and share very personal things. The connection that unexpectedly takes place. This is the face of the blog and my favorite photograph and my favorite conversation.

2. "something very beautiful and somewhat unusual to see."

There’s an elderly couple sitting on a bench. I chose this one because it’s another little surprise, that conversation was not about them, which is often the case, not only with elderly people but with anyone. This entire conversation was about their son and how happy and how proud they were of him. It was something very beautiful and somewhat unusual to see. On a very personal level, this story touched me.

3.  "the older they get the more childlike they become."

This is a contrast to the story of the homeless person, it has a very happy and powerful feel to it. A middle aged couple told me about how the older they get the more childlike they become. And combined with the beautiful fall colors in Boston Common it certainly had a strong visual appeal.

4. "[the] people whose lives, despite the problems they have, appear to be perfect."

The next to last photograph is again about the balance between people who struggle and people whose lives, despite the problems they have, appear to be perfect. People who say they have no problems, or they are really lucky and really happy. The caption here says “I feel like God's luckiest creature.” It also has a strong visual aesthetic.

5. "a stranger approaches you, and within a few seconds you are able to stand in the middle of the subway car and have a very calm, serious, artistic expression."

The final one is of a girl in the subway and this one represents a contrast between a serious expression and a very goofy caption about twerking. I also like it because one thing that maybe sometimes is not necessarily lost but maybe under-appreciated — even I often find myself not appreciating this enough — is how capable these people are, in a few seconds, to express an emotion that’s very strong considering the circumstances, this is a noisy train, a stranger approaches you, and within a few seconds you are able to stand in the middle of the subway car and have a very calm, serious, artistic expression. It always amazes me and I can never do it myself. So I guess this is why this one is my favorites.

Finally, Ivan, I wonder if we might be able to have a photograph of you? 

I don’t think so. I fear the day when I will be more easily recognizable and someone will come up to me on the street and say, oh, can I be on the blog? Then it will become not about having a conversation with a stranger, but being on a blog that you know about and being photographed by someone well known. I think immediately there would be a slight barrier to overcome. For that reason I think I will resist sharing my photograph for as long as possible.

This is only the second or third time I’ve given an interview or talked about the blog. Everything one needs to know is on the blog. I think I’ll always find it very awkward to discuss the blog outside of the stories. But perhaps I will have to get used to this...

“Portraits of Boston: The Street Photography of Ivan Velinov,” is open to the public on weekends through May 25, 2014 at the Piano Craft Gallery on Tremont St. in Boston. More info can be found here.


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