Parents occasionally have to tell their kids not to write on themselves. But Newburyport residents will be writing on one another with dry-erase markers this weekend and calling it a cultural event.
At the Dear World/Dear Newburyport event at the Tannery Marketplace on Saturday, participants will step before the camera of New Orleans photographer Robert X. Fogarty with some part of their bodies inscribed with a message to the world. Faces and arms are the most common choices, though not the only ones. More important is deciding what they want to say.
“People are talking about what they care about most,” said organizer Julie McConchie. “I love the fact that this whole project is engaging people in that process.”
The pictures will be seen in a video and displayed around town. While you choose your own message, McConchie said, it’s hard to write on yourself in a way that works for the camera. So mostly people write on one another.
McConchie got the idea for the Newburyport visit after participating in a Dear World program in New Orleans last year.
“When I found myself in line waiting to have my picture done, it was really lovely because you can’t write on yourself, so you start a conversation with the person in front of you,” she said. “It ended up being these lovely conversations about what mattered to people.”
As Fogarty, 29, tells it, he didn’t set out to be a photographer. The Nebraska native graduated from the University of Oregon as a journalism major, tried New York without finding much success, and ended up in New Orleans a year or two after Hurricane Katrina, working for AmeriCorps. He also started taking pictures.
“About three years ago, I started asking people in New Orleans to write a love note to their city,” Fogarty said by phone. “Just running around the city, setting up [his equipment] at random and asking people why they loved the city. That’s how it began, pretty humbly, just in bars and at events.”
He notes he’s not the first photographer to suggest that people send messages by writing on their body, but that he’s trying to do it well, with beautiful lighting and sticking carefully to a style.
“The idea of giving people the opportunity to express themselves in a different way was really exciting, once people started to enjoy them.”
His aha moment for the full potential of what was then called the Dear New Orleans Project came with a man and his wife who celebrated the recent remission of the man’s illness by writing “Cancer free” on his throat.
“That definitely stopped me in my tracks a little bit,” Fogarty said. “I’d thought we could do more with [the project], but that really kind of confirmed it.”
The first big success outside New Orleans actually came at an event arranged by a friend at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, he said. Now Dear World really is starting to go global. As his website, www.dearworld.me, puts it, “We aren’t changing the world, but we take pictures of people who are.”
Fogarty travels widely staging Dear World events, mostly for large corporations and colleges. During this interview, he was in California for an event at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He has photographed celebrities, including Susan Sarandon and Drew Brees, but he has also continued traveling to record people’s resilience in the wake of such events as Hurricane Sandy and the devastating tornado in Joplin, Mo.
McConchie, who works on local tourism projects, became a Fogarty subject after he spoke at a New Orleans convention held by a company she worked with last year.
“He didn’t ask ‘What’s most important to you?’ It was something like, ‘What’s your message to the world?’ ” she recalled recently, sitting in a local coffee shop. “I was glad the [photo shoot] was a couple of days later, because I had a whole paragraph in my head.”
One member of the group chose “Remember brotherly love” as a message for her two sons. McConchie edited her paragraph down to two phrases, “Human spirit” and “Mother Nature.”
“I was in New Orleans, so I was thinking about the power of mother nature, but also the beauty, and the triumph of the human spirit, and how the community had rebuilt itself and come back,” she said.
Of course, not everyone was so high-minded about their New Orleans experience. “There was a guy who took his shirt off and wrote, ‘If found, return to Room 287 at the Intercontinental,’” she said with a laugh.
In general, though, she was surprised and inspired by how much the project affected her group. “I thought, how interesting would it be to engage an entire community in an event like that, instead of one corporate group,” she said.
Fogarty is charging less than his going rate to come to town, and proceeds benefit the Actors Studio, where McConchie is a board member. City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce are among the project’s supporters.
“I’d like to have the broadest representation of the community in this slideshow,” she said.
Organizers hope 200 residents will show up to have their photo taken in one of two sessions on Saturday. The 1 to 3:30 p.m. session meets at Chococoa Café, with pictures taken at the Actors Studio, both in Mill #1 at the Tannery, and costs $25. A 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. portrait party in the Tannery atrium costs $35 and also includes pizza, beer or wine, and music by a jazz ensemble from Pentucket Regional High School. Go to www.NewburyportActing.org to reserve a spot.
Each person who poses gets a digital image and one ticket to a 7 p.m. reception at City Hall on June 15 featuring the premiere of a video compiled by Fogarty from all the portraits. Selected portraits also will go up in City Hall and in 15 storefronts downtown.
Joel Brown can be reached at email@example.com.