Photographer Adam Schlüter says connecting with strangers saved his life; he hopes others can find the magic in being vulnerable

Photographer Adam Schlüter says connecting with strangers saved his life; he hopes others can find the magic in being vulnerable
Young Kwak photo
At his 60th Monday night dinner in August, photographer Adam Schlüter greets Brenda Cheney.

By the time 36-year-old Adam Schlüter decided a few years ago to take what money he had left and travel the world, he wasn't sure if he even planned to be alive by the end of the trip.

After a difficult breakup, months of depression and isolation in his new city of Coeur d'Alene, Schlüter says he was having suicidal thoughts and was ready to have one last hurrah.

"I decided to just say, 'F— it, I'm gonna die here, so I might as well use every penny that I have to book a trip somewhere,'" Schlüter says. "I didn't have a plan really, but ... I was taking pictures and the idea was just to go rejuvenate some creativity or some inspiration and maybe something would, like, wake me up."

He booked the cheapest one-way ticket to Europe he could find, landing in Copenhagen, Denmark. He planned to push himself to do something that sounds simple but strikes fear into the hearts of many: He would go up to total strangers, say hello, learn about them and ask if he could take their photo.

Exhausted from his travels and still struggling with depression, Schlüter says the process opened up a vulnerability in him that he'd been scared to allow.

"The more vulnerable I became, the more people opened up to me," he says.

Photographer Adam Schlüter says connecting with strangers saved his life; he hopes others can find the magic in being vulnerable
Adam Schlüter photo

Inspired by the book and the blog Humans of New York, Schlüter says he was shocked at how quickly complete strangers on the other side of the planet shared things with him that they had never even told their wife or son or parents.

"I started to kind of understand vulnerability and connection, and it made me feel less alone," Schlüter says. "It truly saved my life."

One time, Schlüter approached a man at a train station in Milan, where refugees were congregating. The man was skeptical when this stranger asked to take his photo, but Schlüter says he explained what the project meant to him, got permission to capture the frame, then showed the man the image. The man took the camera, held the image close to his face and started crying.

"I'm like, 'Whoa, what's going on?' and he looks up at me with all these tears in his eyes, and he says, 'No one has ever asked to take my photograph before,'" Schlüter says. "That's the purpose of this magic, is to show people we see them, and to feel seen, too."

One of Schlüter's favorite stories came from an old man he found standing in some tall grass near the Canadian border. Schlüter told the man the grass blowing in the wind made for a beautiful photo and asked what he did for a living. The man said he was a standup comedian who got into comedy after serving as a combat veteran in Vietnam.

Schlüter says he asked the man if he could share what his first night in Vietnam was like, if he didn't mind.

The man told Schlüter he remembered it like yesterday, going into the trenches as a bunch of kids who were surrounded by Claymore mines and fences: Everyone was terrified.

"He said, 'I laid down in the trench and drifted off to sleep and had this crazy dream. I was in a country setting with a home and a driveway lined with pine trees, and it took me out of that hell for a minute,'" Schlüter recalls.

The man then asked if Schlüter could spare a few minutes, and he said yeah, so they drove down a back road in the man's truck. Soon he slowed and said, "Look up ahead."

Photographer Adam Schlüter says connecting with strangers saved his life; he hopes others can find the magic in being vulnerable
Young Kwak photo
Schlüter with guests Krystin Vens, center, and Amy Jelsm.

"On this country road, with pine trees around it, there's his home, where he's lived with his wife for the last 35 years," Schlüter says. "You can't make this stuff up. He came home and made that dream happen."

Since that first "Hello From a Stranger" trip, the photo project has become a television series that's still in production and could be released soon.

In the meantime, Schlüter has continued to travel, meeting people all across the country, the world and even in his own backyard, as he hosts family-style "Monday Night Dinners" for people at his Coeur d'Alene home.

The dinners quickly grew from small groups of maybe a dozen people to as many as 150 people crowded into his backyard for live music, good eats, cold beer and community.

Schlüter recently hosted his 60th Monday Night Dinner on a warm August night. People slowly trickled in through the gate to his backyard, carrying trays of appetizers and cold salads, some packing camp chairs. As the photographer sat on his front porch talking to this reporter about his photo series, several people came up to ask if this was the right place, and each was greeted with "Hi, I'm Adam, what's your name?" before being told to head on back to the gathering in the yard.

Schlüter encourages those who attend the dinners to invite a stranger or someone they've run into recently who could use some time connecting with others. Several people at the 60th dinner said they'd come to dozens of the community-building evenings, while others drove from as far away as Spokane, Nine Mile Falls and Cheney to participate.

"This isn't a party, this is not like me having friends over to the house, this is a community thing," he says. "I'll get emails from people like, 'Hey, we started this in our neighborhood.' And that's all I really want to do with this. Everybody can do this. Invite your neighbors, sit around a table, no politics, no business, like, just old-fashioned connection."

Learn more about Adam Schlüter's projects at hellofromastranger.com or find more on the dinners on Facebook.

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About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...