When Mitch Eckhardt and his family relocated to the Columbia-Pacific area from a small Texas town last fall, Eckhardt was determined to move past the shallow conversations that people normally have. So he created “Tell Me Astoria,” a photography/storytelling project featuring Astoria residents.
“Tell Me Astoria” is largely inspired by “Humans of New York,” created in 2010 by street photographer Brandon Stanton.
“What I love about ‘Humans of New York’ is that it’s uniquely about people,” Eckhardt said. “Any criticism that could be leveled against Stanton — and there are people who say he’s not the best photographer — should realize that it’s not the point. The point is to share stories around us.”
In Stanton’s case, the original goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street and catalogue the city’s inhabitants. Stanton began collecting stories along with the photos, and the project went viral with more than 20 million followers on social media and a bestselling book.
Eckhardt’s process is less forward. “I’m not just walking up to people on the sidewalk; I want people to come to me. If they’re asking me to be a part of the project, it usually means they don’t mind being photographed,” he said.
With a desire to interact with the community and a passion to capture his new home, Eckhardt began “Tell Me Astoria” with a post on social media. After receiving a ton of comments, he redirected them to his email and began collecting stories.
Eckhardt originally started photographing artists but has since branched out to anyone who expresses an interest. Sid Deluca, an Astoria visual artist, was recently featured. “Mitch is genuinely interested and enthused by his new town and the people in it,” Deluca said. “It was very easy to talk to him, and I think he captures the best in his subjects.”
Another “Tell Me Astoria” post featured local drag queen “Ginger Vitus” — aka Joshua Conklin — who was quoted speaking about Astoria: “Everyone in this town looks out for each other. Everyone is mostly kind. I think in this day and age, especially in big cities people kind of lose that.”
Coming to Astoria
The main hub of “Tell Me Astoria” is Instagram (@ tellme.astoria), but all of Eckhardt’s posts are shared to his Facebook page to reach a larger audience. Each Instagram post has several photos of a featured Astoria resident, along with a small story. Eckhardt’s interviews usually revolve around a basic question: How did you get to Astoria?
Eckhardt’s family — which includes his wife, Alethea, and their three children — have their own coming-to-Astoria story, one that involved a few compromises. Though their ultimate goal was to live in Astoria, the family is in Long Beach for now because of limited housing.
“Living across the river,” he said, “makes it even more difficult to get to know people,” Eckhardt said. “So I had to figure out a way to have a reason to meet people other than the normal networking-type thing.”
However, Eckhardt, 32, a financial consultant, was able to locate his business, Thrivent Financial, on Astoria’s Pier 39.
Eckhardt’s passion for photography took shape about three years ago, but he’s had an interest in visual art forms like filmmaking since his youth.
“I had a camcorder in high school and I wanted to go to film school, but didn’t end up going,” he said. Eckhardt got more serious about film after high school. He befriended local punk bands in central Texas and began filming music videos for them.
As his skills evolved, Eckhardt found inspiration in iconic photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Irving Penn. He started with landscapes but, he said, “I’ve always wanted to take more photos of people, because I love people.”
Eckhardt’s favorite type of photo is “the classic headshot, where a person is looking at the camera and their face fills the frame.” Sometimes people can be self-conscious about the very things that make them unique, he said. “The things that make us unique can be seen in our face. In our day-to-day, we don’t look in each other’s eyes; it can be very intimate. We are sometimes afraid to share who we are.”
Eckhardt doesn’t have an end goal; he just wants to photograph more people and get to know them. “The main thing is to keep meeting people, keep collecting stories,” he said.
For now, Eckhardt is anchored in his love for Astoria and its people.
“We didn’t move our family all the way up here just to leave again. I don’t want to build my financial practice back up again, so this is it,” he said. “I want to build my practice here in Astoria and raise my kids here.”
Interested in participating in “Tell Me Astoria”? Email Eckhardt at firstname.lastname@example.org.