The String Project’s global photography reminds us humans are more alike than different
Chelsea Nix and Mariano Cortez met seven years ago while backpacking across India. She was a photographer from the U.S., and he was a lawyer from Argentina.
“We were both volunteering in India and he ended up chasing after me, up a mountain in Nepal,” Nix said. “It’s actually quite a story. After I tell people, they ask me if I’ve written a book yet.”
Nix and Cortez are now married. They instantly bonded over their shared passion to make the world a better place. Over the past seven years, they have traveled the world together, purposefully visiting the most impoverished communities.
“We stay with the people, we live with them, we eat with them,” said Cortez. “We experience their culture.”
The couple opened a soup kitchen in Guatemala and through their travels around the world, noticed that no matter how poor a family was, whatever language they spoke, whatever religion they practiced, humans are more similar than different. We all experience love, and we all feel pain.
“We wanted to create a photography project to share this idea with the world,” said Cortez. “If we understand that we have so many things that are similar, we can start feeling empathy for people. If we start feeling empathy, we can start caring what other people go through and we can have compassion for them.”
Last year, the couple created The String Project. They travel the world, taking portraits of people holding a white string that stretches across the frame. When the photos are lined up, the string gives the visual illusion that everyone is connected.
“Because we’re travel photographers we’ve been in the street before asking for photos and we’ve received ‘no’s.’ But when we’ve asked people with the string, every single person said ‘Yes,'” Nix said.
There’s the photo of a woman in a colorful head wrap working in a market in Kolkata, India, a Vietnamese fisherman standing in front of his small blue boat, a mother surrounded by young children in Nairobi, Kenya. All staring directly into the lens.
“In a lot of these communities people don’t have mirrors, they’ve never had their picture taken,” Nix explained. “So when we take their picture and show them for the first time, it’s a really wonderful experience. We also have tried really hard to revisit communities to maintain relationships. We always try to bring back a photo if we can.”
They entered The String Project’s collection of photos into the world’s largest art competition, Art Prize, attended by 500,000 people.
“In a matter of six months, on a budget of $30 a day, that included airfare, accommodation, food, local transportation, we were able to visit over 20 countries and five continents, including over 40 different nationalities. We entered it into the contest and took home the Grand Prize award for the public vote,” said Nix.
The mission was to truly connect with their subjects, so they push past the awkwardness of language barriers and share meals before asking for a photo.
“We generally go to the market, buy a couple eggs and go around and knock on doors and say, ‘Hi, can we cook these eggs over your fire? We’re traveling and we don’t have anywhere to cook.’ They would always let us inside,” said Nix. “Then we’re inside a house in a new community we don’t know and we’re sharing a meal with them. It puts you on a very intimate level.”
The photos are beautiful and striking, but I am equally intrigued by Nix and Cortez’s nomadic lifestyle. Both came from comfortable homes, with plenty of possessions. But they’ve given up a permanent address and often sleep in the very modest homes of strangers in the impoverished communities they visit. How did they adjust to giving up their stuff and personal space?
“We meet people with so little, but so happy,” Cortez said. “That was a very powerful message for us. We sometimes see more smiles in a remote, small village in Nepal than in our hometowns. So we try to learn from them and try and challenge ourselves to have a simple life, too.”
On October 1, they’re leaving on a world tour, taking The String Project photo exhibit back to all the countries they visited to show it off to the subjects of their photos.