On January 16, 2018 Jan van Steenwijk presented his first copy of “Ordinary People – Extraordinary Stories,” a catalog of portraits and hand-written life stories of Bedford residents, to Richard Callaghan, Director, Bedford Free Public Library and Don Corey, President, Bedford Historical Society.
Van Steenwijk has lived in Bedford for 30 years where he observed and learned that much of what makes a small town like Bedford thrive are its ordinary citizens. An endless number of people continually volunteer their time and energy to keep aspects of the community vibrant.
At one-point, van Steenwijk recognized that these individuals rarely received credit for all the hours they dedicated to keep projects and organizations functioning smoothly. Wanting to spotlight these everyday heroes, he decided to photograph some of them and asked them to write a little bit about themselves. Realizing that writing, especially about one’s self, is difficult, he asked everyone to hand-write whatever they would like others to know about them on one sheet of paper.
To support their narratives, van Steenwijk chose to photograph each person in the environment that helped describe their voluntary work. The final result was a series of environmental portraits, accompanied by intimate, hand-written texts that together presented a glimpse into the life of a few Bedfordians. “This was my way of giving them the medals they deserved,” van Steenwijk said.
For his next series, van Steenwijk wanted to photograph couples in their homes in order to illustrate how a small sample of New Englanders lived at a certain time and place – the launch of the 21st century. This time he approached one couple, photographed them, and then asked them to suggest another couple to be photographed. This way he felt he could show a diversity of people that he might otherwise miss. “It was a great experience, “he says. “It brought me into people’s homes who I did not know, but they welcomed me as if we had known each other for many years.” As in the previous project, van Steenwijk asked both individuals to hand-write a brief story about themselves.
Although both series of large-format photographs have been exhibited, including at the Bedford Library, van Steenwijk felt that the images and hand-writings should be preserved for future generations, so they could see what people wore, how they styled their hair, how they decorated their homes and what they thought around the turn of the century. And, perhaps most importantly, to show viewers that the dying dinosaur, “Hand-Writing,” still existed! Consequently, van Steenwijk created a book of this work in order to make access to the images and text easy. He will donate several books to the Bedford Historical Society and to the Bedford Free Public Library.
“Ordinary People – Extraordinary Stories” is a 110-page hard-cover book, containing images and hand-written histories of all the individuals and couples who participated. It will be printed digitally, so it will be possible to order and purchase books.
Jan van Steenwijk thanks all his “models” for their participation and, especially, a sincere thank you to the Bedford Library, the Bedford Historical Society and the Bedford Cultural Council, without whose support this project would not have been possible.