DENVER — On a hot summer's day in downtown Denver, you can find all kinds of people enjoying all the Mile High City has to offer: Flowers along the 16th Street Mall with the wonderful aroma. The mall shuttle sounding its memorable bells. It’s easy to get lost in your surroundings.
One thing you might be missing is the people, and not just the faces passing by. The people are most often ignored.
Andy Lurie has been pacing the outdoor mall for the last five years, snapping portraits of random strangers who agree to get their picture taken. It’s been his passion since the project took off.
He calls it “The American Quilt Project.” Not a physical quilt, but a digital one. Over the course of the project, Lurie has added nearly 5,000 faces to his Instagram “quilt.” Scrolling through you’ll notice nobody looks the same.
“I think people like to be recognized,” Lurie said. “Told they’re a valuable human or at least feel like they’re valued.”
When I found Lurie on a hot summer’s day, he was chatting up a man that reminded him of himself. The man he was talking to was homeless.
“I remember being homeless on the mall and thinking about the days when I was a kid and I would hang around in my dad’s clothing store,” Lurie recalled. “I have some fond memories of those days.”
Lurie remembers the feeling of being anonymous. That’s part of what drives him to meet strangers and make them feel seen through the lens of his camera. Years later he was diagnosed with a condition that would change his life again.
“I suffer from this ringing in my ear, in my head, called tinnitus. It drove me crazy, you could say,” he said.
That ringing led Lurie to take matters into his own hands.
“I was just standing on a balcony and I thought I could turn this ringing off pretty easily,” Lurie remembered. “I jumped and the next thing I knew I woke up in a hospital.”
The effects of the fall and the tinnitus didn’t go away. Which led him to a familiar path.
“A year later, almost exactly a year later, I tried again but this time with pills in a hotel room,” he said.
It was after Lurie’s second attempt to take his life that he decided he wanted to live, with a purpose. He wanted something to do with his life, a reason why he survived. So he went back to where it all started.
Lurie loves to meet people for The American Quilt Project on the 16th Street Mall. Who can blame him? Among the sea of business people and travelers, he spots those in the shadows. For most people, we just walk on by, but for Lurie, he stops and listens.
Like one man in a purple shirt carrying a broom and pan. As Lurie is talking to him, he says he lives around the corner in a camp. He’s working to get a place. Lurie takes his camera out and snaps his picture, humanizing him in the process, and making the man’s day.
“I think that’s the power of this project is that you’re going to be seen. You are seen. I see you. You’re there and you’re a valuable person,” Lurie explained.
Witnessing that power in person brings a smile to your face. Just imagine what it does for that person on the other end of the camera.
Lurie isn’t done yet though, his Instagram project is growing at over 11,000 followers.
“I hope these pictures don’t just fade away into obscurity,” Lurie said. “I hope that they’re on display somewhere in some way and that people continue to enjoy them and that they make people feel good.”