Gregory Andrus considers himself a treasure hunter.
Donning a green plaid beret, the 45-year-old went in search of gems on a recent Thursday on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. His tools are a “really crappy” tape recorder and a Nikon camera.
The jewels he’s looking for are stories. Andrus runs the “Portraits of the Jersey Shore” Facebook page, archiving stories he has picked up from people who live in and tour around the Jersey shore. Similar to the popular “Humans of New York” project, the page is designed to highlight people who are drawn to the shore.
He finds a gem in Jozef Jozefowski, a Philadelphia resident who came down to the Atlantic City Boardwalk with his new wife. Andrus approaches Jozefowski the same way he approaches anyone he meets for the project:
“I’m Gregory, and I manage this project called the ‘Portraits of the Jersey Shore,’” he says. “I look for people who are interesting or have interesting stories to tell. Do you mind if I take your photo?” He snaps a couple pictures, and then asks a few questions. The interviews become one of his daily Facebook posts.
It takes a while to mine Jozefowski’s interesting story. Andrus runs through all his fall-back questions — “What brings you to the shore?” “What’s a time in your life where you were happiest?” and “What’s one of the most challenging?”
After about eight minutes of chatting, Jozefowski recalls his bachelor party. His friends wanted to go to a strip club, but Jozefowski didn’t want to. His soon-to-be wife was the only woman he wanted to see unclothed.
Andrus snaps Jozefowski’s picture after he hears this story, and admits relief later that he had finally connected to a “real” moment. That moment is now archived on the Facebook page as the Feb. 21 post.
The “Portraits of the Jersey Shore” project, Andrus said, is based on strangers’ vulnerability. It’s that trust that makes the stories shine.
And the Jersey Shore is home to a special group of people, he said. In the eight months he’s been working on this project, Andrus has talked with couples, former drug addicts, people battling homelessness or mental illness, victims of rape and happy vacationers.
“One of the things I learned from Hurricane Sandy is that the Jersey Shore is a community,” he said. “It extends from Sandy Hook to Cape May. We have a very unique experience living by the water.”
When Andrus started the project last summer, he said he often posted brighter, happier moments. In the winter, he traveled to Cape May and photographed people on carriage rides. More recently, he spent time at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, talking with a motorcycle fan and two best friends. Sometimes he will post names with the stories; other times he won’t.
He didn’t always have his Nikon. Andrus’ first photos were taken with his iPhone. He took pictures of inspirational things, he said, such as flowers or sunsets, and posted them to his personal Facebook page. His friends encouraged him to start taking portraits of other people a la “Humans of New York,” because Andrus loves talking with people, even strangers.
Soon enough, the Nikon came in the mail, sent without warning by a couple Andrus and his wife met on vacation.
“They had a very strong belief that you do something to bless somebody. They found my address and sent me the camera. It literally changed my life.”
Andrus’ journey to telling other people’s stories via the “Portraits of the Jersey Shore” Facebook page was not a straightforward path. He had his own demons to fight, he said.
“To be totally honest, mine is one of the most interesting stories you will ever hear about someone, including alcoholism, homelessness, playing in punk bands, being shot in the head, and then a dramatic second chance at life,” he said.
Growing up in Edison, Middlesex County, Andrus said he had a hard childhood and battled depression and alcoholism. But the shore was a peaceful spot where the family used to vacation. He felt safe there.
A turning point in his life came when he was shot in the head by a police officer’s stray bullet in New Brunswick in 1998. Andrus ended up spending four months in the hospital, recovering.
He said he became more spiritual. After being released from the hospital, he soon met the woman who would be his wife — Mary — and eventually moved to Toms River. He’s now a stay-at-home dad of two boys — Jacob, 6, and Elijah, 3.
His past experiences partially fuel this project.
He worked with Lakewood Outreach Ministry in January to conduct a weeklong series on members of the area’s homeless community. Andrus said he interviewed the homeless and their advocates, being careful to not reveal specific locations of tent cities.
“I would say that my passion is not narrowed to just the homeless and addicts, though I absolutely have a heart for them,” he said. “My passion and heart is for everyone who has ever been marginalized, pushed out to the boundaries and fringes of society because people do not want to understand them, or be bothered with them.”
When picking individuals he might profile, Andrus said a few things come into consideration: Do they look approachable? Andrus said God guides him to some individuals as well.
Depending on the appeal of their stories and a subject’s willingness to talk, Andrus can have a photo with a very short narrative. He’s also broken out some stories into three parts, posted throughout a specific day.
Andrus said he’s not sure where the project will take him in the future, but he knows he wants to find more stories.
“Every single person who shares with me their stories are sacred,” he said. “I’m so grateful and thankful, and I take real responsibility for them.”