PENINSULA PROFILE: She captures photo essays of the heart

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — After leaving her beloved Canada, Jenny Stewart Houston might have moped. A girl from the prairies of Alberta, she moved to Vancouver, B.C., where she enjoyed a busy life as a dancer, actress and yoga teacher.

But along came Cody Houston of ­CageworX, the mixed-martial arts gym in Port Angeles. They found each other on in August 2012, then met actually in Seattle. There, she caught sight of him from a long block away and could see he just might be the one.

One year later, she crossed the U.S.-Canada border en route to Port Angeles to be with her fiancé. The cultural differences loomed: Jenny's a Canadian yoga teacher with three cats while Cody is a mixed-martial arts coach with a pit bull.

Today, the Houstons are living proof that integration is possible. They are happily married now, all settled down in Port Angeles, where Jenny, 37, has embarked on a yearlong journey.

It's called Humans of Port Angeles, and it's a way for her to meet a variety of visitors and residents — and introduce them to the world via her daily photo posts on Facebook.

Inspired by Humans of New York, amateur photographer Brandon Stanton's blog begun in 2010, Jenny walks up to strangers, introduces herself and asks a personal question.

“What is something you don't often share?”

“Can you tell me about a proud moment in your life?”

“What is going on in your life right now?”

She snaps a photo and asks permission to post it on Facebook where, since Jan. 1, the Humans of Port Angeles have been telling their stories.

Couples tell her how they got together. Recovering addicts tell her how they stopped using drugs. Middle-aged men and women tell her about their hopes of starting over, in college or in a job. Immigrants, high school students, people just off the ferry from Victoria open up.

“Sometimes people look unapproachable,” Jenny said, adding that it's not always easy for her to stop someone on the street. But in the first two months of her project, only a handful have declined to be part of it.

The rest are seen on the Humans of Port Angeles page, which at last count had 994 fans and a growing list of comments praising the concept.

Jenny has met other Canadians, as well as a Russian man and a Ukrainian woman. But their conversations are not about politics. Much more often, the topic is love — and hope.

“I'm new to town, just moving here from Portland. I'm looking into the college. I want to get into drug and alcohol abuse counseling. I'm 13 years sober. I used to cook meth. I figure I've had enough stuff happen in my past that I can help others get through what they're going through in life,” Day 29's man told her.

Jenny asked him: “What was your turning point 13 years ago?”

“I met a girl. As soon as I saw her, I fell in love. I moved back home, gained 40 pounds, got myself sober and found her again.

“When you're in recovery, you need a higher power to keep you moving forward. She was my higher power. We had a daughter together, and that's what changed my life.”

Day 16 is one of the most popular Humans of Port Angeles.

“When my wife was dying she said, 'You've been such a wonderful husband to me. Please promise me that you'll marry again.' I figure, the least I can do is look,” he said.

“The day I posted him, the likes skyrocketed for his photo,” Jenny later reported. “I think he's received the most likes per photo so far.”

At last count, 57 people had clicked “like,” and though Jenny doesn't post her subjects' names, several on Facebook recognized the man as Jim.

To conduct her interviews, Jenny goes to the Port Angeles Library, the Peninsula College campus, the Waterfront Trail, City Pier and other public places.

She doesn't usually approach people at work but made an exception for the barber who was waiting for customers in his downtown shop.

“I came in for a shave and a haircut when I was 30,” Day 23 says. “Little did I know that I'd be owning the place 10 years later.”

Around Valentine's Day, she interviewed a woman whose husband appeared later in the conversation.

“I asked her what her happiest moment was,” Jenny reported. The answer: her wedding day.

Then the woman's husband came along, so Jenny asked him the same question.

“My happiest moment was at a little church in Portland,” yes, on his wedding day.

“He's a smart man,” the woman said.

Time and again, Jenny is touched by the things strangers confide. When they're given a chance to talk about those sweet moments, she sees a light come up in their eyes.

“I get to see what's important to them,” she said.

The Humans project has affected her conversations with friends and family too. She listens more and asks different questions.

As a Canadian, “I've had my judgments about Americans,” she acknowledged. Humans of Port Angeles has shown her that “at the center, we're all the same.”

Unlike “Humans of New York's” Stanton, Jenny has not asked the “What was the saddest moment of your life?” question yet.

“I will start to dig a little more,” she said, “as I get more comfortable.”

After two months, however, Humans of Port Angeles is a source of daily inspiration. Jenny is having the time of her life, interviewing people, seeing conversations spring up among the men and women she talks to, asking a man what he appreciates about his sweetheart and watching her reaction.

Jenny's interview style is steadfastly positive, and it tends to bring out the same thing in her subjects.

“After 47 years, I'm back at school. What a trip. My son says he's proud of me for having the courage to come back to school and change careers,” Day 41 told her.

“That's a pretty special thing for him to share with you,” Jenny replied.

“Ah, well, I see it as a quest. You know, life is short. If he only knew how proud I am of him. He's only 31 and has his master's degree. Now that's impressive.”

“You know what's impressive?” Jenny asked. “That fantastic smile of yours.”

“Yeah, everybody says that.”

Jenny aims to post her photos in the morning for maximum exposure on the Facebook page — which isn't always easy since she works at three fitness studios and one restaurant.

An India-trained yoga instructor, she teaches at Kula Yoga in downtown Port Angeles, at her husband's CageworX gym and at Bay Yoga near Sequim.

And three days a week, she waits tables at Next Door, the gastropub on First Street in Port Angeles.

“I like being multi-disciplinary,” said Jenny, who is also developing a wedding and maternity photography business.

Jenny has also juggled community projects before, but nothing quite like Humans of Port Angeles. Her first month of photos were part of the Fun-a-Day show, a Feb. 1 exhibition of the inaugural Fun-a-Day project, in which local artists created something fun on each day of January.

The exhibition stayed up for a week. Jenny, meantime, has vowed to continue Humans of Port Angeles daily till the end of 2014.

She would love to publish a book along the lines of Humans of New York, the best-seller that came out last year.

She's focused on her daily travels in Port Angeles, though, and looks forward to the coming of spring, summer and fall.

“I don't know what I'll do after Dec. 31,” she said.

Last modified: March 01. 2014 7:10PM
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