COLUMN: This conservative CEO takes photos of poor people, and here's why you should care

'He doesn't fit the mold'

CINCINNATI -- Aaron Bludworth describes himself as a CEO, a father of five and a Mormon.

You’ll notice that bleeding-heart liberal is nowhere on the list. In fact Bludworth was a lifelong Republican until he left the party last year, and he still considers himself very much a conservative.

But Bludworth has spent countless hours over the past year taking thousands of photos that focus on people in need.

There’s his haunting photo of a little boy and his mom in Chicago featured above. The two were sitting in a doorway on a cold, winter day because they had nowhere to live. 

It’s not exactly the kind of pastime you might expect from a CEO who travels the world for Fern, the Cincinnati-based marketing and tradeshow services company that he and his business partners bought in 2005. But there’s more to Bludworth than the assumptions people might make based on his home address and political beliefs. Bludworth argues there’s more to the people he photographs, too.

Aaron Bludworth

“Through the lens, I think you see things differently. And that’s really apparent with people more than other things,” he told me. “I think you start to recognize that there’s not just a common class of people who are in poverty. People are there from a bunch of different circumstances. And if you engage with people, they become a lot more personal than just a category.”

For the past three years, I have spent the bulk of my time at WCPO reporting on poverty, with an emphasis on childhood poverty. 

RELATED: WCPO’s ongoing Below-the-Line series

The biggest challenge has not been finding stories. It has been finding ways to make readers and viewers care.

If you’ve never been worried about how you will feed your family or where you will sleep at night, it can be difficult to feel compassion for families in need. So when I heard about Bludworth, I was eager to ask him about why he takes his photographs and what makes him care about the people in his pictures who seem to have so little in common with him.

As it turns out, the answer is pretty simple, and it has everything to do with Bludworth’s faith.

‘Christ wouldn’t just drive by’

“I think most religions believe everybody is a child of God,” he said. “If you start from the platform that we’ve got more in common than different, it’s easier to address the problems that exist or come up.”

As a Mormon, Bludworth pays tithing and also fasts for 24 hours once a month and donates the money he would have spent on food to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which then uses it to care for poor people.

“It’s not just the actions of the church,” he said. “We believe in Christ. Anyone familiar with the Bible and the New Testament teachings of Christ knows Christ wouldn’t just drive by.”

Aaron Bludworth took this photo of a man he met during his travels.

Those beliefs propelled Bludworth to start talking to people on the street in the cities he visits for work. He makes a point of giving away any $5 bill he gets in change and gives those to the people he meets.

It’s a very different side of Bludworth than what most people knew him for in Utah, where he grew up and was active in politics for years. He remained active in Utah after he and his family moved to Las Vegas, where they lived before moving to Greater Cincinnati in 2008 to run Fern.

“He was kind of a mover and shaker in the Republican party and was even thinking about running for governor at one point,” said Steve Kroes, president of the nonprofit Utah Foundation.

Kroes recently became familiar with Bludworth’s photos through social media and was surprised by his work.

“We sometimes think of conservatism as being opposed to compassion. It’s not necessarily true, but I fall into that trap myself sometimes,” he said. “I have to admit I was surprised to see he connected so well with low-income people and entered into their lives to photograph them.”

Bludworth visited Cuba for a business trip recently and took scores of photos there, many of which he posted on social media. He has taken photos in India and Mexico, too. 

One of Bludworth’s favorites is a picture of a little girl in Mexico who caught his eye as a man was holding her and walking away.

Aaron Bludworth took this photo of a little girl in Mexico.

He didn’t interact with her or the man. But he typically talks with the people he photographs to learn more about their stories.

‘He doesn’t fit the mold’

For the Chicago photo, Bludworth spotted the boy because he was walking through a busy business district with a school backpack and seemed so out of place. When the boy ducked into a doorway, Bludworth went to check on him and saw that his mom had blankets and cardboard spread out, waiting for him to get back from school.

Bludworth talked with them and gave them money for dinner before he took their photo. When he went to check on them later that same evening, they were gone.

While many of the people Bludworth photographs certainly could use financial help, he said he thinks they value the conversations and interaction, too.

Aaron Bludworth took this photo of his son shaking hands with some men the family met during a trip.

“I think it’s uncomfortable for some people. I don’t have a problem stopping and talking with anybody or shaking anybody’s hand,” he said. “I think people get to a certain spot in society where they kind of disappear.”

When someone stops to talk with them, it shows them they matter, Bludworth said.

The fact that Bludworth takes the time to stop and talk with people and learn their stories helps people who see his pictures better understand the people he photographs, said Robert Gehrke, a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune who has known Bludworth since they attended junior high school together.

“He’s using a camera in this regard to kind of break out of that bubble and break those stereotypes to reach out and see the humanity that these people offer,” Gehrke said. “He doesn’t fit the mold of somebody who maybe you would expect to devote some time and effort to a project like this.”

Bludworth put it like this: “To me, I’m trying to be a decent person and doing my business and taking some pictures,” he said.

And along the way, maybe he will help more of the rest of us see what he does when he looks through that lens.

Aaron Bludworth took this photo of a little boy in Cuba.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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