As the events of August 11 and 12 unfolded across Charlottesville, photojournalist Sarah Cramer Shields watched it happen on the news.
“I was putting two small children down for naps when it happened,” Shields says in an interview with C-VILLE. “I wanted to be on the front lines telling the stories of what was happening, but I knew that wasn’t the right place for me.”
Watching live as national and local outlets broadcast the violence, she saw “a ton of Nazi symbols, people’s heads being bashed in, people being killed. I remember thinking, That’s not our town.”
Shields wanted to show the world a different side of Charlottesville: one that embraced and celebrated its residents, people who come from all places and all walks of life.
Determined to contribute somehow, she asked herself what the community might need as it began to heal.
“I think people need to connect,” she says. “I think change only happens when we step outside our comfort zone and see and talk to people who are outside our daily paths.”
Shields, who began taking photos in middle school and turned pro after graduating from UVA in 2005, says she seeks out the human connection in all her work, whether she does it for weddings, editorials or other projects. She decided to put her skills to work documenting the people of her town and launched an ongoing project called “This Is Charlottesville.”
Just a few days after August 12, she began walking through town one day a week and asking strangers if she could photograph them. Ninety-eight percent of the time people said yes.
“For some reason, I make people really comfortable. They just pour their souls out to me,” she says. “I’ve been surprised by how much people really want to talk about things, and there really isn’t a platform to do so.”
When Shields takes photos, she asks everyone the same five questions. (She also asks her subjects to nominate up to three people to be featured in the project; her goal is to create one new profile per day.) Then she goes home, transcribes the interview and posts the highlights on Instagram and Facebook. “This is Charlottesville” has 85 profiles and counting. The response, she says, has been amazing.
“People love to hear other people’s walks of life,” she says. “You’ve got people in Hogwaller reading about the dean of the UVA medical school. People on the Downtown Mall seeing the stories of people in Friendship Court.”
Certain connections stand out, she says. Like “the Afghan father who moved here with four kids. He was looking for work but has an incredible skillset, which came across in his profile. I got emails from people who said, ‘What great skills he has, I’ll keep him in mind for jobs.’
“There’s a girl in Friendship Court who is a die hard Cavaliers fan. She’s never missed a game, but she’s never been to a game, either. Within an hour of me posting her story, 20 different people reached out to say, ‘Here, she can have my tickets to this weekend’s game.’”
Shields feels “blown away” by these experiences, which hint at the potential of her project to become an even bigger bridge within the community.
“I think we have a lot of issues in our town, our city and our state that we need to talk about,” she says. “I know this [project] is not a cure by any means.”
But as a personal response to local events, “This Is Charlottesville” allows Shields to highlight the connection she experiences every day.
Whenever she photographs someone, she waits for the moment when her subject lowers his guard. (It usually happens while people talk about something they love.)
The instant her subjects open up, she says, it reveals who they really are.
“I look for honest warmth and openness. A pure, real moment where someone is lost in themselves and they trust me to take their photo.”
That authenticity is the potent stuff that allows strangers to feel close, no matter how different their lives look on paper—or in pixels.
“I’m not some heroic problem solver,” Shields says, “but I see the main issue as the fact that we are not connecting. I don’t know how change is going to happen unless we start listening and seeing how other people live their lives.”