When Ryan Sellers pulls up next to someone on his bike and asks to take a photo, he’s not sure what kind of reaction he’ll get.
“Nobody’s expecting a guy to come up with a camera. I never know where a conversation is going to lead,” said Sellers, 27, a Midtown resident.
In February, Sellers started a photo blog called True KC, offering snippets of insight into the lives of Kansas City residents he encounters on bike rides and walks through the Plaza, Midtown, the Crossroads, East Side and more.
Sellers’ photos capture people in moments of everyday life: walking their dog, exercising in Loose Park, shopping, waiting for a plane at KCI.
“When I take photos of people, I think there’s something for me, as a photographer, it’s really enjoyable to me to capture a moment for someone else,” he said. “They might not even realize the beauty in what they’re doing.”
Sellers will approach people and ask if he can take a picture. He’ll strike up a conversation, then post the photo on the Tumblr blog with a one sentence summary of the anonymous subject’s story. They’re simple and eclectic.
“Most people just call it ‘hoopin’,” said a woman playing with a hula hoop in Loose Park.
“Three years ago, I had legs. This is my way of giving back,” said a man with artificial legs walking around the Plaza.
“People are beautiful, man,” mused a guy eating what appears to be a burrito outside Ward Parkway Center.
Sellers, who works for a Crossroads start up called MyEdMatch, a job-search site for teachers, was born and raised in Kansas City, growing up in Waldo, then Prairie Village. He attended Rockhurst High School before attending Washington University in St. Louis. He was accepted into Teach for America, and assigned to a school at 34th and Paseo, and then the Ewing Marion Kauffman School.
A longtime photography enthusiast, Sellers got an SLR digital camera, and with the encouragement of his girlfriend, set out to document the people of Kansas City.
“When I approach people, I’d say 80 percent of the time, they’re comfortable with me taking their photo,” he said.
Even when he’s gotten a less-than-warm reception, the results have been positive.
“I’ve had the conversation start really cold, like, ‘Why do you want to take my photo?'” he said. “The coldest conversation I ever had ended up being a 30-minute conversation about his small business.”
Sellers’ first photo subject was a young father and son playing on a bench. He spotted the pair while biking near Gilham Road and Armour Boulevard.
“They were playing around on the bench, and that was the first time I’d seen something compelling enough for me to ask a complete stranger if I could take their photograph,” Sellers said. “We talked about life, what he was doing and what I was doing.”
Sellers sees his project as a way to tell an intimate story in a time when, despite the many outlets for sharing (or oversharing), people often lack meaningful interactions. He’s one of a growing number of people and organizations taking to social media to tell the story of Kansas City. Others include Finding Kansas City, another photo blog; LocalStart.org, which features homegrown small businesses; KC Crossroads, whose Instagram page is full of compelling images of the neighborhood, and even the serial tweeting Nelson Atkins Museum of Art.
“I’ve named this project True KC. I put a lot of thought into am I living up to what I want to do, which is capture people from different walks of life and different interactions,” he said.
Sellers’ True KC is reminiscent of the acclaimed Humans of New York blog, which has more than 4.5 million fans on Facebook and more than 69,000 followers on Twitter. It, like True KC, aims to tell the story of a city through its people.
“I think there’s a lot to be proud of in Kansas City,” Sellers said. “I think there are great people here. Obviously, when you have great people, a lot comes out of that. It is something to be proud of.”
Sellers never knows when his next photo subject will appear.
“Some days I go out, and I say I hope something interesting happens today, or I hope I meet somebody cool,” he said.