OAKLAND, Calif. - He calls it a labor of love. Nearly every day for almost seven years, Bay Area photographer Brian Molyneaux has stepped out into his community and used the shutter of his camera to connect, taking photos of thousands of strangers he’s met on the street, to learn their story and then offer a window into their lives.
Molyneaux, a resident of Piedmont, has been a longtime commercial and editorial photographer who has lived and worked all over the U.S. and around the world, including Chicago, New York, Oakland and San Francisco, as well as in Ireland and France.
His current project has been one that has brought him to places that he never expected.
It began in January 2016 when Molyneaux said that he was pulled toward a need to connect with those around him.
"I just saw how divided we were in this country you know, me being a white male, I’m aware of the privilege that I've had growing up and being in this country," he explained. "I can't walk in anybody's shoes, but I really wanted to at least dip my toes in and put my hands in somebody else's hands to try and connect with people of all different backgrounds."
So it began. He’d leave the front door of his home, always with a camera in hand, often on foot, sometimes in a car or bicycle, often in Oakland or Emeryville. And he’d notice someone who would catch his eye-- something about the way they looked, an article of clothing, a facial expression they carried, or the way the light hit them. And he let his intuition be his guide.
"I'm constantly looking for people that are interesting to me and oftentimes they're people that don’t look like me," Molyneaux explained, adding that there was a huge diversity factor that drove this project. "To me, what’s really interesting is people and cultures I don't really know that well, and I'd like to get to know," the photographer said.
Photo of Jay a musician in Oakland. Brian Molyneaux described him as "one of the most relaxed people" he's ever met. (Brian Molyneaux Photograph)
The process was simple. He’d go up to his prospective subject, introduce himself, explain what he’s doing and then click away in 24 frames or fewer, as he stayed true to how he learned photography back in the day, when artists had a roll of 24 frames to work with. And he also interviewed them. The majority of his encounters, he said, were a quick two to five minutes, though some would take longer.
Roughly 90% of the photos for his "One A Day" project have taken place in the Bay Area, with an emphasis in the East Bay.
"I approach people very kindly with caution, a delicateness you know, because I realize whoever I'm going to speak to I'm about to interrupt whatever they're thinking about or doing," Molyneaux shared of his process.
Notably, among the roughly 2,500 people he’s photographed, most have been open to taking part in the project and sharing their story, as he said only an estimated 70-80 people have declined.
"I think people really resonate with this project because the fact that I’m able to show up and say, ‘Hello,’ and say, ‘Hey you matter, and let’s connect,’" he said.
Those he has connected with have stories, wide and varying. And when he tells their story, there’s a simplicity in his prose that’s juxtaposed against the depth and complexity often captured by his photography. It’s through that style, he’s shared where his subjects are in the time and space that their paths cross.
Photo of Dominick, taken by Bay Area photographer Brian Molyneaux, who has taken a photo of strangers he's met on the street since January 2016. (Brian Molyneaux Photography )
For example, on an October day in Oakland, Molyneaux introduced us to Dominick, a young man with warm eyes and light brown braids to frame his face.
"Dominick - was walking with Stephen (Steven?) to GNC so that Stephen could buy some bulking up protein powder," the photographer shared in his Instagram page. "He needs it for his job. He is an EMT and training to become a firefighter," Molyneaux explained.
"We chatted for a few minutes and I learned that he is a sophomore in college at San Francisco State and is studying economics. He grew up in Hayward but now lives on campus in San Francisco. Stephen is his best friend and they have been that way since the 6th grade."
And then there was Sadie, a floral designer he met in the Uptown neighborhood of Oakland. "We used a chair that had been painted gold for Sadie to sit in. I took a few frames and told her she had a great smile to which she responded, ‘Thank you, but it's a mask,’" Molyneaux said, noting that her response surprised him.
Photo of Sadie, an Oakland floral designer, taken by photographer Brian Molyneaux who has embarked on a nearly 7 year project to take a photo a day of a stranger he's met on the street. (Brian Molyneaux Photography )
The next thing he found himself doing was putting his camera away and sitting with Sadie to talk with her.
He learned that she was hurting after having just broken up with her boyfriend, whom she described as a narcissist.
The photographer said, "I got to play the role that I would play probably later with my own daughters, you know, confidante, sort of a dad role. She was really raw and really sad, and I basically gave her a pep talk and sat her down, and we just connected for like 10 or 15 minutes, just sat."
When Molyneaux looked back at the photos he'd taken, he was struck by how powerful they were. "The photos I took were special because there is a quiet. You could see quiet, like pain in her eyes. But it’s also beautiful," he shared.
There was a postscript to his and Sadie’s story. He said about a year later, he ran into her again. But this time, it was she who noticed him on the street and called him over, and the two briefly caught up.
"I don’t think I said it then but I’ll say/write it now - the connection that I was able to make that day with Sadie and with many others is the reason I do this project every day," he said.
Sometimes his "One A Day" will come in pairs, like Miaya and Ramon, who were photographed in May of 2021. Molyneaux pointed and clicked his camera at them while they were waiting for their food at Vegan Mob in Oakland’s Grand Lake area.
"Miaya and Ramon - were waiting for their food from Vegan Mob." The couple was photographed in Oakland, Calif. on May 25, 2021, as part of Brian Molyneaux's "One a Day" photo project. (Brian Molyneaux Photography/Instagram @brianmolyneaux )
"She just graduated 2 days ago with a degree in anthropology and he graduated with a degree in illustration during pandemic," the photographer wrote. "He suffered a bit of a depression for a while and the gym and working out helped him combat it."
He shared a little more about what they planned for their immediate future and offered his impression of them. "They are a lovely couple. You could just tell the great chemistry that they had together and they look great together too," he noted.
There were thousands of these stories carried by the photographer who said that during the depth of the pandemic, he found this need for connection was ever more apparent, and it inspired him to keep going with the project.
Photo taken in Oakland, Calif. on April 8, 2021.
"I realized more and more and more how important it was for everybody," he said, as he shared a story about one woman he photographed quite early in the pandemic as people were sheltering in place.
"She was a very nice person, but she had been inside for about a week. And she hadn’t talked to anybody," he recalled. "She was very gracious and thankful to me for connecting with her. And emotional about it too."
And despite the fact that photos taken during that period were of people whose faces were half covered by a mask and the photographer and his subject stood six feet apart, he said, "Something still came through. The humanity and the beauty in their eyes and the connection. To me, and I hope to my subjects and the people I photographed, is that humanity prevailed and that’s sort of what my goal was at that time period of this project. To keep going and keep connecting," he said in reflection.
Photo of Arlene taken by Brian Molyneaux in Oakland, Calif. on June 10, 2020. (Brian Molyneaux Photography )
When asked what his most memorable encounter was, he mulled over the question for a bit and then the photographer offered an unexpected response: "For that, I'll probably have to go with one that doesn't even have a photo," he said with a pause, adding, "It’s the one that got away."
He went on to share the story of a man named Ronnie, who caught his eye as he was driving in San Francisco’s Mission District.
"I jumped out of the car. I saw a guy, and the light was just incredible, a tall African-American guy," he vividly recalled. He was so struck by the man that he rushed over to him, nearly out of breath, introduced himself, explained his project and asked if he could take his photo.
The man just looked at him, with a quizzical expression, prompting Molyneaux to repeat his spiel again.
When Ronnie finally responded, he said, "Nobody of your kind has ever said that to me."
It was then Molyneaux’s turn to be confused.
"I said, what, what do you mean?" the photographer recounted. "And he said, ‘Well, nobody in my whole life,’ I mean he's at least in his 30s maybe 40s, he said, ‘Nobody of your kind, no white man has ever come up to me and told me that I looked good or important or beautiful or interesting,’ or what ever I said to him. I said, captivating, I think," Molyneaux shared of that moment.
He went on to tell of how the two spent the next five minutes just talking, while the man, whom he later realized had been holding a dustpan in his hand, had taken a short break from his job cleaning the streets, so the two could chat.
"We talked about racism, we talked about equality, or the lack thereof, and the world. And he told me what life was like growing up in Hunter’s Point in San Francisco. And I told him about life on the Southside of Chicago, obviously from a totally different perspective. And it was a beautiful, moving moment," Molyneaux recalled.
He and Ronnie shook hands as they left one another and walked away from that moment shared by two complete strangers.
"I think we’re both hopefully better for having had the meeting," Molyneaux said. The connection they made talking didn’t allow him the time to take Ronnie’s photo. But Molyneaux said the encounter had an immense and lasting impact on him and that when he left Ronnie, he told him that he hoped to meet him again one day and photograph him then.
It was moments like these, he said, that kept him fueled to keep the project going all of these years. And Molyneaux admitted that his "One A Day" journey was never meant to last this long.
Aaron, described as a "dapper photographer" was captured in this photo in New York by Bay Area photographer Brian Molyneaux. (Brian Molyneaux Photography )
"When I first set out to this, I thought it was going to be for a couple months. I had no intention of going anywhere near this," he said. That couple of months then turned into six months, and then he decided to stretch it out to a year.
"Then I got to a year, doing it every day, and then I thought, ‘Now what? I can't just say goodbye. There's a lot of people that I've met,’" he said as he joked, "People would say how long will you be doing this for, and then I'd say, ‘Till I meet everybody or until I die,’ which you know, I may be doing it for that long."
And the longer this journey stretched, the more he’s seeing his stories come full circle as his community seems to get smaller.
This was demonstrated when he recently met a woman on a walk. As Molyneaux started telling her about his project, she quickly made a connection and explained that she was intimately familiar with the photographer's work.
Years ago, she said, Molyneaux had taken a photo of her wife, Tess, who was going through gender transition at the time. "And you validated her so much," the woman told him.
As the seventh anniversary of the inception of Molyneaux’s "One A Day," project approached, he said he’s been considering the next step he might take. He said he’s thought about circling back to his subjects to explore, where are they are now?
He also said that he’d love to see the project evolve to an even larger format, possibly showing the faces he’s captured in a gallery.
"I mean sounds lofty, but you know SFMOMA would be a really great place to post these photos and these stories on the walls in large format," he said, or maybe have the collection made into a book series.
But whatever’s next, Molyneaux said he hoped this would be part of his legacy as a photographer.
"I want to be known for this project, and I also want people to get something out of it," he shared, saying, the bigger the reach, the more opportunity others would have to make that connection with others, which could help to bring down the walls that can lead to bias and bigotry.
"One of the overarching goals or impetus for the project is that I want people to look into the eyes of other people and find the connection to themselves," he said.
And as long as there was a need to bridge a divide and make those connections, perhaps he would indeed keep going until there was no one else left to meet.
"There’s too much hate. There's too much racism. There’s too much anti-Semitism," Molyneaux said, adding, "Again, I can't walk in anybody else's shoes, I can barely dip my toes in. But I can do what I can do, which is make photos, tell stories from my perspective, with a high respect for the person that I'm talking about and hopefully, telling their story the way they tell me."
Selfie of photographer Brian Molyneaux take on Oct. 20, 2022 in Piedmont, Calif. (Brian Molyneaux Photography)
You can follow Brian Molyneaux's "One A Day" project on his Instagram page here.