Mike Angelieri collects stories. Most of his stories come from Salt Lake Valley, although he doesn’t limit himself to that one area. Neither does he limit himself to talking with certain groups of people.
Angelieri, who recently moved to Stansbury Park with his wife from Salt Lake City, has met people from all walks of life since he started his “Humans of Salt Lake City” Facebook page in October 2013.
He got the idea for the project after reading a news article about “Humans of New York,” a photography project started by Brandon Stanton.
After Stanton started adding quotes from the people he photographed, his project evolved into something more than a collection of photos. It became stories of humanity.
“I read about it and thought, ‘That’s a pretty cool idea,’” Angelieri said. “I jumped onto Facebook just to see if anybody was running a project like that for humans of Salt Lake City and nobody was, so I created the page. I had no idea what I was going to do; I had no plans about how I was going to get people to talk to me or who I was going to talk to. I didn’t know what I was doing; I figured, ‘All I can do is try.’”
With that humble beginning, Angelieri, who said he is an observer of people and has always been a writer, began searching for stories. His first interview was with a gardener at Temple Square. He asked her what piece of advice she would give the world.
She told him, “Do something you love every day.”
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a great way to start this project,” he said. “The next thing I knew, in a short period of time, I had a hundred followers. Then it began growing exponentially with every story that I posted.”
Since that first interview, Angelieri has visited all kinds of neighborhoods and talked with all sorts of people. With his camera hanging around his neck and his voice recorder ready, all it takes is a moment of eye contact — and you might become his next story.
“If I make eye contact with somebody and they’re obviously unoccupied, if they’re not reading or on their phone or talking to somebody, I’ll wave and smile at them,” Angelieri said. “If they wave and smile back, I’m probably going to go over, sit down and talk to (them).”
No matter how a person might look, where they might be, or what they might be doing, Angelieri believes that they’re worth talking to.
In fact, that was the whole point when he first started his “Humans of Salt Lake City” project — to create a place where people could learn from one other and encourage each other.
“I’ve come to realize that when you give a person a chance to talk to you, you can learn something,” he said. “It sounds cliché, but the bottom line is … everybody has a story. Everybody has a struggle. Everybody has something to teach and everybody has something to learn. Every single person that I talk to teaches me something.”
Over the past six years, Angelieri estimated he’s interviewed close to 2,000 people. Each person he’s talked to has left a lasting impact on his life.
“I find it cool that I can talk to somebody and we can exchange words and ideas and thoughts, and I can say to that person, ‘I’m going on my way now and we may never cross paths again, but I have a little piece of wisdom from you that I get to carry for the rest of my life,’” he said. “I don’t think people realize enough that when you invest in even a little conversation with someone, you can come away a more full, complete person.”
If everyone took a little more time to interact with each other, the world would be a different place, Angelieri said.
One of the biggest benefits he has seen since he started the project is the discussions that begin in the comments on his posts.
“It’s so easy in our society to think, ‘I have a problem and I’m the only one in the world with that problem,’” he said. “I think when people realize they’re not the only one, and a discussion occurs because of it, they gain a new perspective that helps them feel that they’re not alone.”
Angelieri shared a stark example in an interview he did with The New Utah Podcast last year. As he was walking through a neighborhood in Salt Lake City near some old apartment buildings, his attention was drawn to an older woman standing on her front porch smoking.
“She was probably in her late fifties. … She had very messy hair and a halter top dress with no straps,” Angelieri said in the podcast. “When I’m maybe 20 yards away, she sees me and she calls out to me in this real pronounced New Jersey accent, she says, ‘Whatcha takin’ pictures of, honey?’”
He went over to her, introduced himself, and explained his project.
“She said, ‘Well, I’ve got a story,’ and I said, ‘All right, let me turn on my recorder,’” Angelieri said.
The woman proceeded to tell him how she’d been sexually assaulted by a pastor the year before. As she talked, she broke down in tears. She told Angelieri that she was thinking of committing suicide.
Angelieri was shocked by her story, but felt it was important that he stay and listen.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is exactly where I need to be. It costs me nothing to let her unload; maybe that’s what she needs,’” he said. “I let her say everything she needed to say, and then finally I said to her, ‘Please don’t hurt yourself. … If you let me publish this story on my page, you’re going to find out that there are other people out there, other survivors, other people … who know what you’re going through, and they will send you comments telling you that they’re praying for you and giving you their strength, and you will find that you can touch a lot of lives with this.”
The woman gave permission for Angelieri to post her photo and story. Sure enough, at least a dozen people commented on it.
“They said, ‘I’m praying for you,’ ‘Be strong,’ ‘Don’t let this idiot ruin your life.’ All these wonderful things,” Angelieri said.
Three weeks later, he was back in the same neighborhood when he heard someone call out to him. It was the woman.
“This time she had had her hair all done and she was better dressed,” Angelieri said. “She saw me and she yelled out, ‘Humans of Salt Lake City! I saw my story! You saved my life!’”
He added, “I swear to this day, I still get goosebumps. That’s some of what I capture.”
At this point, Angelieri has collected many different stories.
“As soon as I think I’ve heard everything, something else comes along and I realize I’ve never heard anything,” he said. “People talk to me about their shame, their pain, their fear, their dreams, their realities — and sometimes I hear very strange things.”
Along with stories, Angelieri has collected thousands of new fans. As of Aug. 14, his Facebook page had more than 41,000 followers and “likes.”
“It’s never been about the numbers, but it’s kind of cool to watch it grow,” he said. “I don’t need any kind of publicity or notoriety. I would just like people to know more about the project itself and what it can do to touch people or inspire them; make them change their thinking.”
Angelieri’s goal is to encourage understanding and kindness among people who normally may never talk to each other.
“This is my way of doing my part to foster kindness and communication,” he said. “Call it bridge building, dialogue brokering, whatever. I really think that when you’re living your life … not paying attention to the people around you, you’re missing out.”