We wanted to know who we are as a city: Nashville. And this unprecedented work of photojournalism is how we chose to do it. It started like this: A prominent businessman and philanthropist called and asked for a meeting. No topic, just a meeting. Intrigued, I said yes. We climbed the back stairs to a back room of a nondescript office building in Nashville. Doors closed. Handwritten notes came out (which I later discovered is his habit). And he said, “I’d like to do something for this city that’s never been done.” That was a compelling opening line, so I settled in to listen. “Nashville has grown so big, we don’t know who we are, we don’t know each other,” he said. “People say we’re the next hot market, whatever. We have all this new prosperity and self-esteem…but not everyone is sharing in it. And until they do – until we take care of our own – and unless we protect what has drawn people here in the last several years…we’ll never be the city we have the potential to be. So, what do we do?”
We began looking for an answer to his question.
First, we approached the question like it needed an advertising campaign, PSA’s. These were false starts we didn’t pursue, and which the benefactor dubbed “too small.” He said, “This can’t be a campaign, it has to be a movement.” He asked, “How do we inspire a movement?”
How do we inspire a movement?
A movement wasn’t really in my playbook and I had a day job, so time lapsed. I started a new company. We got busy. Until one day my business partner said he had a friend who wanted to introduce us to someone. A photographer passing through Nashville who had just returned to the U.S. after years spent working mostly abroad.
“Might be someone you could use someday.”
So we met.
Turns out this was no ordinary photographer. He’s a well-known, award-winning photojournalist with a dogged approach to telling stories: “No agenda, tell it like it is or I don’t take the assignment.” He embeds with his subjects for months, and in some cases, years. Combat zones. Ghettos. Warlords and tribal shepherds. Then he lets the stories come to him. And he tells the world what he’s seen.
After we met, I phoned the benefactor and said, “I think we have a solution for that movement.” We presented the photographer with a proposal:
Come live in Nashville and record who we are.
No agenda. No format. Go any direction you deem necessary to make an honest, authentic record of who we are today–all the parts of us. North, South, East, West. Local. Immigrant. Young. Transient. Established. All colors. This would not be W. Eugene Smith’s “Pittsburg” project. In our case the photojournalist would have the liberty to see things as they really are and we would swallow this pill, good or bad or both.
And so we began Code name: We Are Nashville.
A philanthropist (who wanted to remain anonymous and cover the expense alone; no sponsors, brand associations or corporate money would be involved that might sully the objectivity, the authenticity of the project).
A photojournalist (who, it turns out, was suffering from PTSD and in need of healing–a fact that would come to color his enormous record of Nashville and its people).
And two business partners and friends with a cadre of co-conspiratorial volunteers who, along with the project’s benefactor, had little idea how incredible a journey we were all about to embark upon.
A journey we are now happy to share.
We Are Nashville is an unprecedented, multi-year portrait of the soul of one of America’s fastest growing, highest profile cities.
The heartbeat of the story, curated here at wearenashville.com, is contained in over one hundred storylines chronicled by a single, deeply embedded observer over a period of more than four years. The fiber of Nashville is explored through a complex matrix of personal introductions and serendipitous connections, from hot chicken to the matriarch socialite to the kingpin gang banger. The story threads are supported by more than a thousand photographs, dozens of short videos and live-action audio files, raw journal entries, writing, and oral history.
The effect of the combined materials is to make it feel as if you are discovering the city yourself. You see a person, hear them speak, read their words. This is a portrait of the city’s values as much as it is a portrait of people and activities. The fluid portrait of Nashville which has emerged already is predictably complicated and resonates with unexpected and recurring themes, combining to create a compelling profile of a rapidly changing and diverse – yet remarkably compassionate – city.
It turns out there is evidence supporting Nashville’s being named an “It City.” There is also evidence of needs yet to be met. Along the way, Nashville has itself become a living gallery for the story, with more than fifty large-format mural images quietly yet boldly appearing on the sides of buildings (along with accompanying QR links and words). Large and small. In every corner of the city. And in special supplements of The Contributor newspaper–specifically chosen so you can meet people as they hand you these stories.
The Nashville stories are fluid, their themes re-told over time. And sometimes spontaneously: the sudden, sweeping destruction of a tornado, or the all-encompassing grip of an unexpected viral epidemic. Is Nashville special? If so, why?
We Are Nashville provides more than a hundred original stories, interviews, and observations that combine to create an unprecedented composite look at a city on fire. A city of exploding growth which is quietly working hard to retain, protect and sustain its inherent kindness, respect, and goodness of spirit. And to share those qualities – and requirements – with those who continue to move here. The storylines continue to emerge. And after three years of covert, unedited and authentic discovery, the presentation of We Are Nashville begins to unveil. Start here to begin your exploration. But be sure to engage with us so you can participate in the “living galleries” popping up in neighborhoods across Nashville.
YOURS TRULY— K. D. B. & F.