Silver-haired and slightly rushed, English-born Matt Roberts, 55, has seen more of Long Beach than most natives. On Fridays, he rides his black Trek mountain bike to different neighborhoods, stopping strangers on the street to ask personal questions that might be construed as invasive, but to which most respond with surprising candor and personal details.
The creator of an increasingly popular Facebook page called Humans of Long Beach, you can find Roberts furiously taking down his subjects’ responses on a notepad bent to his grip with a pen soon to run out of ink—although he has four more clipped to the side pocket of a satchel slung over his shoulder.
Once all questions have been answered, he then takes their photo, usually several, and shares them with Long Beach and the world online.
Roberts has been criticized plenty of times for featuring some of the city’s “less than savory characters” on the page, but his explanation is usually the same: “[…]the page is called ‘Humans of Long Beach’, not ‘Nice Humans of Long Beach’ or ‘Humans of Long Beach You’d Take Home to Meet Your Mother’, and I think this is what makes the project what it is,” he said.
“It’s featured people of all colors and creeds and all ages, six months to 104 years old,” Roberts said.
Initially inspired by photographer Brandon Stanton’s photoblog, Humans of New York, which features on-the-street portraits of New Yorkers paired with concise and often intimately detailed anecdotes given by the photographed, Roberts first set out, December 18, 2012, on a bike armed with a Canon Rebel to find people to document.
Within about five minutes on that first day which Roberts remembers as being unusually cloudy, he found his first subjects, two travelers named Bill and Steve who were sitting outside of a Vons with a cardboard sign that read “TRAVELING. BROKE & HUNGRY. ANYTHING HELPS. GOD BLESS.” The two were elated to have their photo taken, Roberts said, describing the moment when Humans of Long Beach was officially born.
Since that dreary December day six years ago, almost 10,000 people have liked or followed the Humans of Long Beach Facebook page. Roberts’ snapshots of those who inhabit the city add to a continuous feed constantly humanizing Long Beach’s often trumpeted diversity stats, while also including members of its homeless population.
“The homeless in particular have always held a fascination for me, how people have come to be where they are, how they survive, what motivates them and keeps them going, etc. And several of the homeless people I’ve met doing HOLB I now classify as friends,” Roberts said.
He’s seen Ivy Nicholson, an 85-year-old, blonde, leathery-skinned former supermodel—and the only subject he’s featured on Humans of Long Beach three different times—go from homeless to housed. Nicholson has been on the covers of Vogue and Elle, was a star in Andy Warhol’s Factory films and is one of the most interesting people Roberts has met since he started the project.
He generally asks his subjects the following questions, improvising occasionally as the conversation evolves: “What is your favorite thing about yourself?”, “Least favorite?”, “What is the best feeling in the world?”, “And what are you grateful for?’
As for the details of his own story, Roberts was living where he grew up in North West England—in an industrial town called Ellesmere Port near Liverpool—in 2007 when he decided to move to Long Beach. Several life disruptors, including the end of a long-term relationship and an intense bout with depression, spurred him to make a drastic change when the opportunity arose: a lifelong friend who’d been living in the states for a decade said he could get Roberts a job.
“It sounds like a huge cliche but I don’t know where I’d be now if it wasn’t for him, he probably saved my life[…].” Roberts said.
About a year later, he was stepping off a plane at LAX to start a new chapter. One of the first items he bought upon his arrival was a camera—he wanted to post photos of his new life on social media to show his family and friends back home, but he quickly found that what he enjoyed most was photographing people, compared to landscapes or architecture.
“People and how they work have always fascinated me, and they always will, but different things on different days depending on different moods can inspire me to talk to certain individuals,” Roberts said. “There is no set rule. I can go a couple of hours of cycling around town without feeling the urge to speak to anyone and hear their story, just observing things, and at other times I want to speak to everyone.”
As a cost engineer at Torrance Oil Refinery, Roberts works four, 10-hour days a week and generally takes Fridays to add more humans to his collection. He says HOLB has taken him to “every nook and cranny of the city, good and bad and I think I probably know it geographically as well as anyone.”
He doesn’t let talk of dangerous areas or dangerous cities keep him from visiting various neighborhoods or traveling; for the Belmont Shore resident, it’s about knowing when not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In Long Beach on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Roberts was at the eponymous park when he struck up a conversation with a policeman.
“I said, ‘Are you trying to say I’m not safe here? And he said, ‘On a normal day, no you’re not,’ which really shocked me,” Roberts said. “I said ‘Christ, I come here every week, with my camera and my bike and I’ve never had any trouble,’ but it just shows ya that there’s stuff that you may not be aware of that could be dangerous.”
Now, Roberts is self-publishing Humans of Long Beach: The Book, with more than 450 full color photographs and more than 400 anecdotes and stories from his work over the past six years. Getting the book together has been an arduous process, but now that it’s near completion—with the first copies soon to be delivered—he can look back on this ongoing project with pride. (He will be donating $5 from every book sale to a local charity helping the city’s less fortunate.)
“I certainly didn’t expect HOLB to last this long, but I still look forward to saddling up and getting out there simply because of the characters I meet every time,” he said. “Several times over the last six years I’ve thought to myself ‘why am I doing this?’ or ‘what’s the point?’ but then I’ll meet another character and my passion for it is re-ignited.”
And now, we’ve got some questions for him:
What is your favorite thing about yourself?
It may sound a bit corny but I’d say it’s probably my empathy for others, something that has definitely increased tenfold since I started doing Humans of Long Beach. When I meet someone who has quite obviously lived a much harder life than I’ve ever had to I always try to empathize without being patronizing.
OMG, where to start. My impatience is probably number one and it grows with every passing year, especially when I am behind the wheel of my car. I also have struggled getting a grasp on saying, ‘No’ to anyone or anything.
What is the best feeling in the world?
The most common answer I get to that question is love and it’s an answer I can’t argue with. I came to America a single guy with no intention of being anything else, but ten years on I’m happily married to the love of my life and it feels good.
And what are you grateful for?
We played that game after Thanksgiving dinner this year where you had to scribble on a piece of paper what you were most thankful for. I put my health on one piece of paper and Y&T on the other. What’s Y&T? It’s one of my favorite bands and it was at a Y&T concert that I met Liesl, my wife.
What does being able to publish a Humans of Long Beach book mean to you?
Roberts would also like supporters to know that if you live in Long Beach, the $10 postage and packaging fee will be refunded, and that he will be delivering those books himself—probably by bike. You can also check out Humans of Long Beach on Facebook here and Instagram @humansoflong.