"People of Portsmouth:"

A project meant to expose the quiet life of the everyday citizen in a Seacoast city

By Tom Spencer
On February 28, 2014

It was a bitter cold New England sort of night; a lone woman took a breath, and approached a homeless man sitting on a sidewalk to ask him a question. 

Passer-bys cast nervous and suspicious looks at the pair, who were soon chatting. The woman is Raya Al-Hashmi, and she wanted to photograph the man for her blog, "People of Portsmouth." Her curiosity for the weather-beaten man's story and her photographer's eye outweighed her anxiety about approaching a stranger. 

The man agreed, and while Al-Hashmi snapped pictures, she asked him questions. It was Jan. 19, and Portsmouth was gloomy with the Patriots' final loss of the season. It was 28 degrees. 

This is the story behind one of Al-Hashmi's photos on "People of Portsmouth," a picture of a homeless man smoking a cigarette amid the slushy wash of street lamps. 

"People of Portsmouth" is a photojournalism blog styled after the popular "Humans of New York," but set in the small city on the New England seacoast. The blog, which Al-Hashmi launched on Jan. 12, 2014, is available on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Seacoast Online and Patch. It is a collection of snapshot stories about ordinary people. 

Al-Hashmi is a UNH alumna, class of 2013, with a degree in English/journalism. She was highly involved in extracurricular activities such as photography for TNH, "Main St. Magazine," and "Aegis" literary magazine. She is be the first to admit that these activities often took priority over her classes.  

She completed an internship at Seacoast Media Group, where Deb Cram, the company's director of photography and multimedia, acted as a mentor. 

"What makes a good photojournalist is their ability to communicate with the subject," Cram said. "You have to be able to speak with the president of a company, or a homeless person, making each feel comfortable in their own space."  

 Al-Hashmi's work is popular due to its fascinating insights into the lives of others. 

"Raya has an impressive way of creating community - finding a story within the story of a person walking down the street," English professor Tom Haines, who advised Al-Hashmi during her time at UNH, said. "She brings her subjects to life, and she finds something, profound or whimsical, with which we can connect." However, finding these connections can be intimidating work. 

One man Al-Hashmi wanted to photograph crouched and sped away after she greeted him. "Too bad," Al-Hashmi said. "He had a great beard. He would probably have a great story to tell." 

Aside from good facial hair, Al-Hashmi keeps an eye out for lurid clothing styles, lopsided haircuts and tattoos. "If someone has a crazy look, they are comfortable with attention, and would probably be happy to be photographed," Al-Hashmi said. 

According to Al-Hashmi, men are usually more willing to have their picture taken than women, but one young man she stopped had serious misgivings. 

"I don't photograph well," he told Al-Hashmi, who immediately asked for a chance to prove him wrong. 

The man said he looked best in candid pictures. This happens to be Al-Hashmi's favorite style. She often works to capture her subjects at ease, and un-posed. 

"Usually the pictures towards the end of the shoot are the most natural," Al-Hashmi said. 

Al-Hashmi works with a Nikon 80 camera she got in 2008. It has withstood everything from the blast-furnace heats of Oman, (where she travels to visit her father) to the sub-zero temperatures of New England. 

Most exchanges ends with the subjects' nerves put to rest, due to Al-Hashmi's fluid conversation, good humor and warm laughter. They usually share something interesting for the caption. 

The man who wanted to look natural half-joked with Al-Hashmi that one of his goals is to find his soul mate, which he believes he passed on the beach the other day without saying anything: "Wussed out, I guess," he said. 

During the editing process, Al-Hashmi shifts through dozens of photos and hours of recordings for the right picture and quote combination to tell each character's story. Whether it's an aloof glance that captures listless romanticism, a laugh shared between a couple or a regretless smile from someone who has endured much in life, Al-Hashmi creates a record of human moments. 

Unlike the photo blog's inspiration, "Humans of New York," "People of Portsmouth" happens in a small community. This presents distinct challenges. As Al-Hashmi is out collecting stories and pictures, she often runs into previous subjects. She usually greets them again, and chats for a moment. 

Once Al-Hashmi ran into the same homeless man from her photograph. He wanted some spare change for a cup of coffee, which Al-Hashmi gave him while she caught up with him about his plans to make his way to Boston. 

Al-Hashmi will occasionally get calls or emails from people she has photographed, asking her not to make the pictures public. She respects these wishes, as subjects will disclose personal information including battles with mental illness, relationship struggles or life goals. 

Al-Hashmi wants to continue working in media and journalism. Her goal is to work with an Al-Jazeera branch either at home or abroad. In the short term, she would like to figure out a regular schedule for People of Portsmouth updates, which she finds difficult to fit in between work and interning. 

"If you really want something bad enough, you will find a way to get it, and I believe [Raya] has what it takes to do that," Cram said. 

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