© Szymon Kochanski, Project Bly (La Paz)

Nellie Bly was a groundbreaking American Journalist in the 1800’s, traveling around the world in less than eighty days. She wore the only dress she was bringing and carried her only luggage, a handbag packed with a few essentials. Nellie Bly’s adventurous attitude inspired Rena Thiagarajan, the founder of Project Bly, to name her company after the brave reporter. “I didn’t want to make up a name that had no meaning for the company,” Rena tells me. The name is appropriate, considering Project Bly travels around the world, finding artifacts from different regions and selling them on their website, projectbly.com. Although Nellie Bly was in a rush to complete her journey, that is definitely not the case with Project Bly. “It’s not just a website that lets you travel around the world,” Thiagarajan tells me, “we go in depth and show people stories and history.  Every product has a story.” And what better way is there to capture these stories than through street photography? Not only can you peruse through beautifully crafted items on the Project Bly website, but you have the option to “explore” and look through street photography that gives you an accurate sense of each place, like their current location, Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

Bukhara1 Theodore Kaye

© Theodore Kaye, Project Bly (Bukhara, Uzbekistan)

Rena Thiagararjan started to piece together the idea for Project Bly after buying a rug from a man in Almaty, Kazakhstan over the Internet. Once she graduated from law school, that’s right, law school, Thiagarajan began searching for a unique rug for her house. (Rena Thiagararjan was a lawyer for seven years before committing her life to Project Bly.) “I started looking online and I must have spent one hundred hours looking for this rug. Eventually I found a guy in Almaty and purchased it online through him. I didn’t want a ‘Room and Board’ rug, or a ‘Crate and Barrel’ rug that everybody else had. I wanted something with history and a story, something unique. That’s how Bly started forming in my head.”

Bukhara2 Theodore Kaye

© Theodore Kaye, Project Bly (Bukhara, Uzbekistan)

Along with Thiagararjan’s rug experience, Project Bly was also sparked from her love of travel.  “In my early twenties I started traveling by myself, my first solo trip was a six moth trip to Central America. I always preferred not having an agenda and just wandering. I always liked wandering the streets of a city, or having my coffee and watching people go by.”  Rena Thiagararjan’s mother was a museum director, and as a child Rena always went to every museum or monument with her when they traveled.  Now, as an adult, Rena would rather not have an agenda while traveling, saying, “I’m not going to every monument, I’m just going to try to be a part of the city.”

Yam Sellers in Kejetia Market

© Nyani Quarmyne, Project Bly (Kumasi, Ghana)

One of Rena Thiagararjan’s main goals is to stay true to each city Project Bly travels to.  She feels that by using street photography, she’s able to display each place in the right light. “I wanted to capture the gritty, candid images of the street. I think that there’s so much you can learn from just wandering the streets. I really wanted to capture that chaos, that energy. Walking the streets it’s not just the sounds and the smells, it’s the imagery and the people. I feel that having polished travel photography just does not [show] that, it’s not what street culture is about.”

Kumasi2 Nyani Quarmyne

© Nyani Quarmyne, Project Bly (Kumasi, Ghana)

Rena turned to professional street photographers to help fulfill her vision of Project Bly. Theodore Kaye, for example, shot their current city, Bukhara, Uzbekistan.  Rena Thiagararjan has built up a database of photographers, but in the beginning she searched for people through Google, or by looking in publications like National Geographic or The New York Times. Most photographers are excited to work on Project Bly. “It’s the kind of project that photographers get pretty excited about, I don’t have shot lists and I don’t try to direct their style or what they’re trying to capture. They’re just walking the streets trying to capture that energy, that chaos of the streets.”

Malacca1 David Hagerman

© David Hagerman, Project Bly (Malacca, Malaysia)

Bly just finished a trip to Vietnam, which will be featured on the site in 2014.  They will also be going to Oaxaca Mexico and Marrakech Morocco. Rena says that she’s really excited for three upcoming trips, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Kiev, Ukraine, and Kashgar, China.  She’s still looking for photographers for her trips to Ethiopia and Ukraine, but she’s especially excited for those trips because she’s never been to Addis Ababa or Kiev.

Bukhara3 Theodore Kaye

© Theodore Kaye, Project Bly (Bukhara, Uzbekistan)

Project Bly also gives back to each place it travels to.  Rena Thiagarajan says, “One thing I find, especially with traveling, is that people are so generous with their time and generous with their stories. I really wanted to be able to give back to those communities.” A percentage of Project Bly’s profits go back to local charities.  Bly usually picks a charity that focuses on children in some way.  Rena says that she also hopes to go back to the cities that they’ve already been to and “provide something each year to each charity that we support.”

Bukhara4 Theodore Kaye

© Theodore Kaye, Project Bly (Bukhara, Uzbekistan)

Each place that Project Bly travels to has it’s own special story, as does each item on their website. Documenting the gritty chaos of these places through street photography is important to Rena Thiagarajan, the images and items on her website are truthful to the cities they come from. They tell an authentic story.  Whether it’s a silk rug selling on her site, or an image of the market place in Uzbekistan, Rena and her team at Project Bly choose them because they help to paint a picture of the city they come from.

Kente Weaving in Bonwire, Ghana

© Nyani Quarmyne, Project Bly (Kumasi, Ghana)