(Photo via @walkwithlocals)
The social web is always at its best when it’s actually social.
Sometime around March last year, Capitol Heights-based photographer Anna Meyer got an Instagram notification: a message from fellow D.C. photographer Carl Maynard, who goes by @carlnard online. She’d never met Maynard before — in fact, she’d never interacted with him on Instagram, either.
“But he messaged me a few times and tagged me in some posts, suggesting I join this walk he was hosting for photographers,” she told Technical.ly. He and some friends would be walking around to see the District’s famous cherry blossoms, taking photos and getting to know locals with that common interest. Meyer decided to join.
It ended up being too cold for the blossoms. But it was less about the flowers, as it turned out, and more about the people.
Nearly 10 months later, Maynard’s project Walk With Locals has hosted 25 walks, bringing dozens of community members together to interact without a phone screen between them. This week, about 60 locals braved the cold to walk on Grace Street together.
“It’s having someone that is your neighbor — they live in the same city as you, but you don’t know them at all — becoming an actual neighbor and having a relationship with them,” Meyer said. “There’s not a lot of bells and whistles. We get together, we plan a route, we invite people to join us.”
Walk With Locals usually meets about two weekends a month. When summer came around, they took advantage of the warm weather and extra daylight to meet up weekly after work. “That helped our relationships develop quite quickly,” Meyer said. “Even though we’re not even a year old, for some people, members of the community that have formed within Walk With Locals are now their closest friends in D.C.”
Whenever Meyer leads a walk, she challenges participants to walk with someone they’ve never met before. (Meyer and fellow D.C. photographer Julian Mitchell are leading the walks while Maynard spends a few months overseas for his day job.) She also encourages the walkers to get to know one another, rather than immediately exchanging social media handles. “That way more conversations and stories come forward, rather than a curated feed,” Meyer said. It’s all about creating a welcoming, inclusive community; the curated feed of photos participants post afterward, #walkwithlocals, is a cool byproduct.
And while Walk With Locals centers around photography — a few weeks ago, the #walkwithlocals tag hit 25,000 posts — even that’s flexible.
“Even if people aren’t photographers, because we live in the digital age where we’re all constantly taking pictures on our phones, anyone can feel they can come,” Meyer said.
During that first walk to see the not-yet-blooming cherry blossoms, they had about 30 participants. Just before the holidays, they reached another milestone when about 85 people joined Walk With Locals at CityCenterDC’s Dolcezza.
WWL partnered with the luxury downtown development’s security to provide for a rare photo access to its courtyard, which glitters with string lights in the evenings. They’ve met on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in Alexandria’s Jones Point Park for their first Virginia walk, beneath the Hirshorn for World Architecture Day, at a Maketto location for a coat drive and more. They’ve also hosted walks in Brooklyn, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
look at all those joyful faces!! tonight was a dream. thank you so much everyone for coming out and a HUGE thank you to @dolcezzagelato & @citycenterdc for being so hospitable to all of us! so much love from the bottom of our hearts to yours. tag your neighbor – tag your neighborhood: #walkwithlocals
you ever wonder what 200+ people underneath the @hirshhorn looks like? thanks so much (x a billion) to @deane_madsen of @brutalistdc for giving us a tour around the @hirshhorn this evening. we'll never not think of strawberry donuts and elephants when we pass by from here on out. and a big big thanks to everyone who joined us! we cant wait to see your photos. #WWLxHirshhorn share your world: #walkwithlocals oh ps.. we love you @hirshhorn team!🤗
Their next goal is to take the movement beyond the District. Meyer said they’ve already seen scenes from South America and Europe peppered in the #WalkWithLocals feed, but they encourage community builders — who aren’t interested in self-promotion and will commit for the long haul — to bring the project to their own cities. (Email them if you’re down to join.) This week, they began allowing followers outside the region, from L.A. to Miami, take over their Instagram story with the hashtag #WWLxTakeover.
Instagram has become a hub for D.C. creatives online, but in the past few years it’s also been successful in building communities and connections among artists offline. The popular photo-sharing app also led to the creation of the @ACreativeDC feed, the Instameet community @IGDC and the monthly photography meetup @StreetMeetDC.
“Instagram is the literally the reason Street Meet exists,” founder Pierre Funes told Technical.ly. “This wouldn’t happen on Facebook, this wouldn’t happen on Meetup.com or any other website.”
Using just a hashtag, they connected with amateur photographers around the District. And when the leading Instagram account @StreetDreamsMag announced they were coming to the area as part of a collaboration with Honda, Funes jumped on the opportunity, promising the magazine a large turnout of photographer-types. When the magazine’s milestone edition included photos from StreetMeet’s shoot, Funes realized his project’s new reach. “When I saw that happened, I was like ‘holy crap!’” he said. “Everyone on Instagram knows who Street Dreams is. That was really big.”
Now that StreetMeet brings in somewhere between 70 and 100 photographers, videographers and models, it’s also launched a GroupMe chat. But its roots are firmly based on offline, real-life interactions that leave everyone with something new.
About a year and a half ago, Funes was on Craigslist when he saw an ad to meet up with a local amateur photographer. That’s where he met Aaron Williams, now his cofounder at StreetMeet.
“I’d never met someone who knew so much about photography, and it was one of the best experiences as a photographer I’ve ever had,” he said. “We talked about cameras and settings and lenses, and I learned so much that I wanted everyone to be able to have that.”
Since then, Funes and Williams have been joined by their moderator Franklin PruDencio and Johnny White, who designs their graphics. Together, they choose trendy, metro-friendly locations and invite other amateurs to meet them there.
“People bring a new camera they bought the other day and have no idea how to use it,” Funes says. “But they’ll meet someone who can tell them, ‘Oh, make sure you use this setting or that function.’”
Each meet then organically spirals off into a series of hands-on workshops, where amateurs are learning how to direct and shoot models for free.
“It’s hard for many people to find that,” Funes says. “But we’ve built that kind of environment.”