Putting Down Roots: Humans of Sackville

An accidental community photography project leads to personal and business growth in unlikely ways.

Ian Chew, a 21-year-old self-taught photographer and full-time International Relations student at Mount Allison University was inspired by a project he saw on Facebook and turned it into a powerful  community gathering place and platform for his own personal and business growth.

Humans of New York is a street-photography project that features photographs and portraits of people in public places with short quotes telling their story.  Finding himself in Sackville, New Brunswick, far from his home in Malaysia, Ian felt inspired by a man he saw at a gallery opening and Humans of Sackville was born in September 2012.

“I saw this guy and liked his beard and wanted to take his picture.  I kind of made the story up on the spot.” …and so Humans of Sackville was born.

The image that gave birth to the community that is Humans of Sackville

His photography subjects are everyday people going about their daily lives.  He captures the moment beautifully and sums up their story in a concise caption.  The community that has gathered around this Facebook photography project has spun off to print publications in local newspapers and interviews with national media.  The commentary left by the public is kind, encouraging and positive in stark contrast to comments often left on social media where people feel anonymously able to say exactly what’s on their minds.

In a town with scarcely 5,000 residents Humans of Sackville has amassed over 3,000 followers eagerly awaiting the next photograph.  People with local roots living away check the page regularly to catch a glimpse into their hometown, many of them remembering what was beautiful about their upbringing and longing to ‘come home’.  Ian Chew, an individual whose own roots originate half a world away,  has become entrenched into the wider community for his eagerness to speak to born-and-bred locals as well as those who have chosen to make Sackville their home, building bridges between two communities for which there is sometimes a disconnect.

While community builder is not a title he is entirely comfortable with, he acknowledges that the effort put in to Humans of Sackville has enabled him to improve his photography skills and has created a demand for his expertise as a family and business photographer and online marketer –  a far cry from his teenage years when his friends told him to stop taking photos because he was a terrible photographer!

Humans of Sackville: seen at the intersection

Ian’s photography with Humans of Sackville is done completely on a volunteer basis while creating a demand for his photography skills for local families, businesses and charities.  In addition to his success as a photographer, this project has allowed Ian to overcome some significant personal struggles as well.  As the popularity of this project grew, demand increased for Ian’s own story, which he timidly shared, enlisting the help of fellow local photographer, Feona Seerattan, herself living in Sackville by choice having grown up in Toronto via Barbados, to photograph him. ” I have hesitated for a long time whether I should tell my personal story… To open up to others – especially with such honesty and vulnerability – is always a bit unnerving….I have long suffered from anxiety and it got really bad over the summer when I came back to Sackville. I started Humans of Sackville in a few dark months of my life.”

Feeling inspired by the feedback left on his photographs, messages from strangers sharing their personal hardships and relating to his photography subjects helped him deal with his own personal struggles and propelled him forward.  Growing as an individual and growing his photography business while studying full-time Ian quickly began to find it difficult to manage the time commitment required to complete background research, cycle to photography destinations, photographing, editing and posting.  Ian recently officially partnered with Feona who, with palm to forehead, admits she had plans to start a similar project before she met Ian but the demands of raising her family, work and her photography business kept her from moving forward.   Feona‘s particular interest in fashion helps keep up with the demand for their community-generated stories and maintain the popularity of the site.  A business relationship and personal friendship has quickly been forged and both Ian and Feona recognize the importance of Humans of Sackville as a positive community building and marketing tool for their respective individual photography businesses.

Ian Chew and Feona Seerattan: building community through photographic storytelling

From a grassroots photography project that began on a whim Ian and Feona have embarked on a path of putting down roots in their adopted community.  Their commitment to community engagement has also fostered business growth for their respective photography businesses.  Much like sowing a seed is the first step to growing a plant, sometimes acting on a spontaneous whim and the appropriate follow up is the first step to growing a successful business, making meaningful connections with those around us and tending to our own personal and business growth.

Has putting down roots in your community helped you grow personally or strengthen your business? What is your biggest take-away from reading Ian & Feona’s story?

3 comments

  1. I love this project and it makes me want to start something similar in one of my local towns, Bisbee. It’s is a place with amazing character and amazing characters. What a fun way to bring a community a little closer together!

    I still feel like I need to put stronger roots down in my community. It’s hard because I live in such a rural place that is so spread out. I often don’t feel like I fit in with the other people here, which is why many of my connections end up being in Bisbee, the closest town. I’m planning on participating in the local farmer’s market and I hope that will help me to make some new connections, growing as an artist and business owner.

    Thanks for sharing this inspiration!

  2. April Heather Art says:

    I have to say I most definitely did NOT want to put down roots where I am . I wanted to MOVE. But once I accepted that moving was not an option at the current time, I began opening my mind to receiving the blessings of right where I am. When I did, I began to meet the most amazing people! My life has changed for the better in more ways than I can describe.

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