Grace: Photographer captures the face of Omaha, one mug at a time - Omaha.com
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Alvin Harper(ATIIM JONES)
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Kaylee Nelson(ATIIM JONES)
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Atiim Jones, left, takes a photograph of an unnamed woman in the Old Market. Jones has some 3,000 photographs of people posted on his Facebook page as part of a project he calls the Face of Omaha.


Grace: Photographer captures the face of Omaha, one mug at a time
By Erin Grace / World-Herald columnist


See thousands of photos in Jones' ongoing project

* * *

The face of Omaha is black and brown, tan and white.

The face of Omaha is young and old, topped with blond hair or wire-gray hair or orange and blue hair.

The face of Omaha has earlobes stretched around big discs, mouths missing baby teeth and eyes framed by black-rimmed glasses.

The Face of Omaha is the name of a local amateur photographer's project, comprising some 3,000 faces. You can see these faces right now on — where else? — Facebook.

For three years, Atiim Jones, a lab tech and self-taught photographer, has taken his Nikon to the Old Market. He watches you and me and that random tourist walk the brick streets. He points and shoots, and when the face is identifiable, he asks for permission and then posts the photos online.

At a time when the rest of us have turned the cameras on ourselves, sharing “selfies,” Atiim keeps his lens pointed outward. He does this for no profit and little glory. Mostly he does this to satisfy a creative itch and to build a mirror for the city.

Peer into this mirror and you will see the human mosaic that is Omaha: the black violinist with a white beard, the white bartender with a goatee, the blond-haired girl in her plaid Catholic school jumper.

The faces are expressive and reflect so many experiences that you wonder what their stories are.

This is just it: The portraits leave you hanging.

They are not self-portraits taken when running onto the College World Series ball field or with Pope Francis. Technology and social practice have made self portraiture so common that Oxford Dictionaries recently christened “selfie” an actual word. You can now use it in Scrabble.

Atiim is not anti-selfie. He said it's important to be proud of who we are and what we are doing.

Yet Atiim doesn't take self-portraits. Of all the photos on his Face of Omaha Facebook page, there is just one of him, taken about 20 years ago by a friend. Atiim is jumping. He looks exultant. But the image is buried with all the others.

“I'm not very fond of my own picture,” he explains.

Maybe it's because he was bullied as a kid. It wasn't easy being the black boy in east Omaha who liked books, he said.

Maybe it's because he doesn't see himself now as all that interesting. He spends his days sterilizing lab equipment at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, a job that, for the record, he likes because it provides a paycheck and keeps his mind open for his creative pursuits after-hours.

Or maybe it's because he's so focused on the world around him.

Atiim loves spending his free time in the Old Market, getting behind his Nikon and searching for moments and faces.

We scroll through some on his Facebook page:

“That's Kaylee,” he says of a young woman with what looks like a jacket wrapped around her face. It is raining. She stares hard at the camera, unsmiling.

Atiim explains that Kaylee Shea drives a horse carriage around the Old Market. He has photographed her before, and on this day, he popped in front of her and said, “Hey, Kaylee,” and took this picture.

Most of his photographs are tight mug shots focusing on the face. But Atiim widened the lens on some for sentiment or message or both. Here's a toddler walking hand in-and with his mother. Here are two women walking hand in hand. Here's a street musician showing a boy how to draw a bow across the strings of his violin. Here's the same musician reaching for his violin in front of a sign that reads: “Steps away from the trendiest restaurants, fashionable shops and unique galleries.”

For awhile Atiim focused on shooting the homeless and showed me a dramatic portrait he'd taken of a man about his age named Marquis.

“He suffers from chronic schizophrenia and depression and has been out of contact with his family,” Atiim said. “He was the most charming person. His address was, 'Hello, sir.' and 'How are you doing.' Very polite.”

Atiim has never formally studied photography. He is self-taught. He credits his late sculptor father, Luther Jones for passing down a creative hunger.

Atiim satisfies that hunger in the Old Market. He is drawn there for the architecture, the lighting and the array of people, who typically don't mind being photographed.

Atiim says he takes selfies all the time. Not ones that meet the Oxford Dictionaries definition. Not the ones that you or I take.

In the portraits of others, Atiim says he sees himself.

Maybe if we spent more time looking outward, we too would see ourselves reflected in the faces and experiences of others. We might empathize more. We might understand.

Then we might be less likely to see a face so different than our own and think: “Other.”

We might see that different face and say: Me. Myself.

Selfie.

Contact the writer: Erin Grace

erin.grace@owh.com    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.


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