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Eric's Heroes: The man who captures the face of Seattle one photo at a time

Ben Carson at work. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE -- The sun was peeking through on an early afternoon on Capitol Hill. Traffic was moderate to heavy on Broadway. The sidewalks were full of people walking to lunch.

And then Ben Carson showed up. He walked with purpose across the rainbow colors on the crosswalk on Pine. He had long straight hair and round Lennonesque sunglasses. Her carried a small black case in his right hand, and a big cardboard box with a handle in his left.

He found a suitable spot in the shade, took off the sunglasses and plopped his box down on the corner. There was a big sign stuck onto the box. In tall black letters it said, "Free Portrait."

Then he set up his tripod and opened up the black case. There was a 35-mm camera inside, and he loaded it with film.

And just like that, he was in business.

Ben Carson doesn't work for a photography studio. This wasn't a "gig." In fact, to call him a professional photographer would probably be a stretch. His day job is repairing bicycles.

When I ask him how the whole thing started, he said simply, "The origin of it is very simple: I just like taking photos of people. That's really all there is to it."

So there you have it. He was there on the corner with a camera and a sign on a box just for the sake of doing it.

It didn't take long for customers to show up.

One guy asked, "What is this?"

Ben answered, "It's kind of an art project. I'm going around to every neighborhood in the city and taking photos of whoever wants me to on the street."

The guy didn't hesitate. "Sure, I'll do it."

"Awesome, man," said Ben.

So he took his picture.

Over and over that scene played out.

Some people smiled for their photo. Some were serious. One guy held up a bicycle he'd built. Another got down on a knee and posed with his pit bull.

Watching him from a distance, it became impossible to argue a very fundamental fact: Human beings love having their pictures taken.

And I know what you're thinking: "What's the catch?"

I was thinking the same thing.

Person after person stopped by. And after the picture was taken, Ben handed each of them a card and said, "You can find the picture on my website. Do whatever you want with it."

More than one subject asked, "And it's free?"

Each time Ben answered, "Yep."

"How do you get rich doing this?" I asked, half facetiously.

By now so many people were coming up asking for their portraits that it was hard to squeeze in a single question.

"I don't," he said. "It costs me money. But it's worth it. The project is really fulfilling for me. I enjoy it. It's more about community than about money.

He shoots one roll of film per neighborhood. Thirty-six photos. Then he moves on.

He's done it in the U-District, and Belltown and Ballard and Fremont.

Couples stop by, eager maybe to capture their love of film.

Some people want to use the shots for ID's.

Some were curious after seeing something about it on Reddit.

When he's done with a roll, he goes home and gathers all his chemicals and cannisters and developes the film himself. Old school.

"I has to be exactly 68 degrees," he says from his bathroom.

He mixes and rinses and goes through the process.

"It's more involved certainly, but more rewarding," he says.

When he's finished, he opens the cannister and pulls out the negatives, holding them by one and peering at them through the bathroom light.

A few days later on a sunny day in Belltown, there he is again with his box on the corner, taking people's pictures, capturing their smiles and their essence.

The variety is fascinating. A hipster couple with shades and a big leopard-print coat. A middle-aged guy with graying hair. A young woman on her lunch break.

Two laughing young women, Chuc and Libby, stop and talk about why it is they wanted their free portrait.

"We're vain," says Chuc. "We are! We like selfies, and we don't like to admit it, but we are all selfish and vain." She says it with a smile, but of course, she has a point.

"And you know," she says, "I want a record of my life. I'm not going to remember it all by myself."

Ah, yes. Moments frozen in time. The way things are... soon to become the way things were.

After talking to Ben Carson for a while, you realize the point of it all, IF there is a point, is that he's just a guy trying to connect to other human beings.

"I've never really been good at figuring out how to connect with the community, you know?" He has his round sunglasses on again. He's leaning with one hand against his tripod. "I do things in a very straightforward way, and I figure the most straightforward way to do that is to put a sign on the street corner and take pictures of people.

I want to hear more, so I ask, "What does it do for you?"

Ben answers, "It's fulfilling, man. It's something to look forward to."

And an amazing thing has happened because of Ben's pictures. Larger portraits of Seattle's various neighborhoods have emerged on his website.

There is a cumulative effect as you look at all the faces. Young, old, black, white, rich and poor. They seem happy. Some seem sad.

And as you scroll through them, one after another, there is a tangible sense of the moment. This is Seattle. Right now.

The way things are...soon to become the way things were.

Editor's Note: "Eric's Heroes" is a weekly series airing every Wednesday on KOMO News in the 6 p.m. newscast. If you have a good story about a good person doing good things for the right reasons, share it with Eric by sending an email to heroes@komonews.com.

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