Overcoming loneliness, one photo at a time

A San Francisco photographer took pictures of her neighbors and built a sense of community along the way.

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Sheila McLaughlin lived in the same San Francisco neighborhood for over 20 years. She had friends, raised a son, and felt connected to her neighbors.

But things around her quickly started to change. Her son moved across the country for a job. He was her only family nearby. Many of her friends left San Francisco to care for elderly parents or to raise children elsewhere.  The alternative art spaces where she once socialized started to close down.

For a long time, her neighborhood — full of working folks and middle-class people — was known as “The Western Addition.” But as it started becoming fashionable, attracting a young and trendy demographic, the neighborhood was renamed “Lower Pacific Heights.” That was an attempt to associate it with tonier Pacific Heights nearby, and to capitalize on escalating housing prices, wrote a columnist in a San Francisco rental magazine from November 2006.

Before McLaughlin knew it, the neighbors she once knew were gone.

“I used to know the people upstairs, but they had left,” she said.

McLaughlin felt like “the last man standing.” Her apartment was rent controlled, so she didn’t even consider moving. But it felt as though she had just arrived in Lower Pacific Heights, despite being there for over 20 years. When she walked up and down the street, nobody said hello. It made her feel “invisible to the people that were around me.”

She felt a sense of isolation that was at times “unbearable,” McLaughlin said. “And I wanted to change that somehow.”

Social isolation

You can be lonely anywhere, says University of Pennsylvania psychologist Thea Gallagher. But she hypothesizes that something about the city makes us think we should be able to put in less effort to make friends or find connection.

“You might think ‘I live in a city, there’s a lot of people around me, I have lots of opportunities to do social things or to be connected with people,’ and maybe you don’t put the work in, in an intentional way as much,” she said.

“I think maybe sometimes people in the suburbs or rural areas feel like: ‘OK, I am more distant from another person, I have to be intentional about creating community and connections,’” Gallagher said.

In a small town or close-knit suburb, you see familiar faces every day — at the grocery store, on your block, at the neighborhood restaurant. But in a city, the sheer number of people can breed anonymity — and make it difficult to form connections.

Gallagher says that can be bad for you.

“Social isolation and lack of social support has been found to connect with mental health challenges. And so I think having more social support and connection, we know, helps people with their quality of life, mood, overall outlook, things like that,” she said.

Gallagher encourages people who are feeling lonely in the city to use groups like Meet Up to make friends.

Neighbors within reach

McLaughlin, the longtime San Francisco resident, is a photographer, so she used the tool she had on hand to stay connected.

“I went outside in front of my own house with my camera, loaded with film,” she said. “And I would just ask the first person I saw: ‘Do you live around here?’”

If they said yes, she had a spiel ready: “I’m Sheila. I live in this house. I’ve been here such a long time. I’d like to create some sense of community in this neighborhood because there doesn’t seem to be any. And I don’t know how you feel, but do you know your neighbors? Do you feel connected to this neighborhood?”

This often started a conversation. She said that people told her that they shared her feelings: they were lacking a sense of community, too. So McLaughlin would ask if she could bring her camera and tripod to the neighbor’s home to take their portrait — and to get to know the neighbor better.

“I think that what people have around them tells you a lot about who they are,” she said. “And I think people like to be seen. They like to feel like somebody cares for them. So I think that was another reason why people would say ‘yes’.”

McLaughlin says she approached about 50 people on the street. “You make yourself very vulnerable when you go up to a total stranger and say, ‘Please let me come into your house,” she said. “So I had to be in a particularly outgoing frame of mind.”

Nobody was rude to her, even when they weren’t interested in being photographed. Still, McLaughlin says she had moments of insecurity. She would imagine being approached on the street and would wonder “‘How would I feel if somebody walked up to me and said this?’”

Her answer to herself: “Don’t think about it. Just do it.”

Some neighbors who said “no” at first eventually changed their minds. And neighbors who agreed to sit for a portrait often introduced her to others.

That’s how she met single mom Sandy Minella, who lived around the corner.

Sandy and Gianna Minella, courtesy of Sheila McLaughlin.

McLaughlin photographed Minella and her daughter, Gianna, in their kitchen, sitting beside a table covered with photographs of family and friends.

Since joining the neighborhood portrait project, Minella says: “I’ve met many people that I now can say ‘hi’ to on the street and everything.”

Artist Hildy Burns was selling paintings at a garage sale on the corner when McLaughlin approached her. Burns says she was hesitant, but she eventually agreed.

“It certainly brought more of us together,” Burns said of the project.

“We developed relationships,” McLaughlin said.

Her portrait collection is called “Neighbors Within Reach.”

McLaughlin photographed nearly 30 neighbors. At first she posted the photographs on her blog, then, she and a neighbor turned the photographs into a book.

“And I started to maybe see them on the street and talk to them. Things changed for me because I was feeling like I’m onto something, this is bigger than myself. This could resonate with other people for different reasons. It’s not just about me now. It’s about everybody that’s involved.”

Music credit: The audio story includes the song “Avec Soin – Romance” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com), licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.

Paige Pfleger contributed to this story.

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