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Photo Courtesy/Portraits of Boston

Photo Courtesy/Portraits of Boston

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN The Huntington News, Sept. 26, 2013

By Sara Tucker, News Staff

There are approximately 626,000 people in the city of Boston, all with at least one story. People walk the streets and ride the T, with little or no concern about those around them, interested in only a few of the many thousands. But a website developed in the spring of this year, Portraits of Boston, is changing all that.

In April, Ivan Velinov started a Facebook page to display his photographs of people and the occasional cute animal in the city of Boston. Since that time, the page has gained more than 31,000 likes, a number that is increasing by the thousands every week.

“The blog is less than six months old – it has a modest online following,” Velinov said.

Photographs posted to the page can feature an individual or a small group of people: women and men, children, dancers, construction workers, professionals, artists and families.

Tim Sakharov, a freshman computer science major, was photographed with his friends Kurt Marcinkiewicz, Matthew Yudysky and Michael Hu, all freshmen computer science majors. The boys were taking a short tour of the city before classes began when they fell into a debate about the importance of either a specialized or a well-rounded college education. Velinov approached them after overhearing part of this conversation.

“He asked us to keep going with the conversation, to elaborate a little bit,” Marcinkiewicz said.

According to Sakharov, Velinov’s approach was a welcome surprise.

“I suppose it was unusual, we definitely didn’t expect it, but at the same time, we were excited by the fact that someone off the streets can just join in on the conversation,” he said.

Velinov spoke reluctantly about his work on the project, but was very passionate when he talked about his photography.

“[In terms of work], this is all I’m doing right now, and I’m just trying to do it as best I can,” Velinov said. “I try to get a little better every day, and that’s all I can do.”

The photographer has declined interviews with both Boston Magazine and Boston.com, because he prefers to focus on improving the project rather than publicizing his work.

“I don’t think I have much to say at this point. I’ve met some wonderful people, but their stories are already out there, and it’s not usually what the interviewers want to talk about anyway,” Velinov said. “I prefer to just focus on making the project better.”

Velinov talked more about his work in the streets, and admitted that there’s no real method to finding the perfect subject or someone willing to engage in conversation.

“It’s different every time,” Velinov said. “Sometimes it may be someone in uniform: a chef on the street, a nurse or doctor. Sometimes it might be someone visually interesting, someone who has presence. And sometimes it’s just a vibe that someone has.”

The photographs on Portraits of Boston spotlight people of all different backgrounds. People old and young, Indian and Hispanic, black and white, happy and sad. Names are not included on the page.

One photo features an older couple, both smiling, the woman’s arm draped around her husband’s shoulders. He sits in a wheelchair and his left leg has been amputated. The couple was visiting Boston to pick up the man’s new artificial leg, which he lost a year ago.

“It must have been a very difficult year,” Velinov told the man.

“It was very difficult,” he replied. “What I’ve learned is that you have to accept it and move on. And my wife and children have been so supportive.”

His wife then walked over, and Velinov filled her in on the conversation.

“He is so sweet,” she said. “Did he tell you we have actually come from Tennessee to pick up his new leg? The first time we were here was the day after the bombings, and we were in a room next to survivors who had also lost limbs. You just never know what can happen to you. You have to enjoy every moment while it lasts.”

Another photo shows an older man, his hand raised in greeting, his eyes wide open, wearing a purple polo and a light blue jacket. He is homeless.

“How long have you been homeless?” Velinov asked him.

“Fifteen years,” he replied. “I’ve been in Boston eight months. Before that I was in Maryland, Washington, Virginia, New York, Philadelphia, Louisiana, Florida…”

The two talked more, and Velinov gave him the only money he had in his pockets before leaving.

“It ain’t all about money,” the man said. “Give me a hug. And next time you see me, give me a hug again. And thanks for taking my picture.”

According to Velinov, that photograph is the most popular on the site.

“That’s one that will stick with me for the rest of my life. And not necessarily because it was interesting, but because he was a spiritual person who had gone through a lot of pain,” Velinov said. “These are the kind of stories I enjoy. They’re difficult to hear, but I cherish them.”

Portraits of Boston is a glimpse of a world that many people don’t see – or are scared to see. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people have seen that homeless man on the streets across the country, but Velinov approached him and shared his story.

“It’s not about being interesting,” Velinov said on selecting a subject. “It’s about being kind, being open to talk. Ideally, I just look for nice people, and I think everyone is nice underneath.”

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