I recently met a woman who was beautiful, intelligent, confident and creative. She has a PhD, she is a successful photographer and she is a world-traveler. She is also a visual voice for the people of Olympia.
Her name is Jan Lewis, and she just completed Olympia Portrait Project, an 80-page photo essay book capturing the tapestry of people who work, visit or live in Olympia.
Lewis is not only able to share the beauty of people through her photography; she also asked a series of questions of each person featured, so that readers could dig deeper, to more than meets the eye. One of the questions asked was, "If people didn't know you well, what might surprise them about you?" And the answers are indeed, surprising. Complimenting each portrait is a brief interview that is overlaid on a stunning embossed picture of Olympia itself.
For an added bonus, Lewis includes local trivia and landmarks in the book.
Here's the interesting part: Lewis chose her models simply by walking around town. She took her camera and a notebook full of mini-questionnaires and acted on whatever moved her: A child playing, a woman running with her dog, a waitress at the Spar, a drifter playing drums, a costumed man dancing in the park.
"It was guided by visual interest, but then I would wait for an opportunity to make eye contact," says Lewis. She then validated her project by handing out information on her intentions and letting people know they could view their portraits online.
"I went into this expecting about 60 percent of people to say yes," says Lewis, "but there were only three polite refusals, most were very agreeable."
Part of the inspiration to begin this book was propelled by past portrait projects Lewis has done in countries such as India, Kenya, Iceland, China, Russia, Guatemala and France - it took a friend saying, "Why don't you do this in your own backyard?" before it clicked in Lewis' mind that she should begin her journey of discovery at home.
"Initially, I didn't see the merit. It didn't seem exotic compared to other cultures - but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that we have such a diverse group of people," says Lewis. "It went beyond my expectations."
Since meeting Lewis for an interview regarding her book, we developed a relationship based on a love of sharing stories of fascinating people. I, as a journalist for an alt-weekly, her as founder of this book. It came to be that she asked me to write the forward for her book, as we share a kindred spirit of acceptance and intrigue of the people that make up our community. I felt it fair to share this fact with readers, so no conflict of interest comes about when people see her book.
I genuinely feel Lewis's compassion for others, her keen eye for photography and a compulsion to share her experience through a visual journey makes this book a unique keepsake of the city many of us call home.
Lewis will also show 130 prints of her other work at the Olympia Library Annual Art Sale, Nov. 10 and 11, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. inside the Olympia Armory at 515 Eastside St.