Words by Rae Witte. Photos courtesy of Koreen Odiney.
Imagine a 16-year-old that you don’t know pulling up on you, soft spoken and bright eyed, with a camera around her neck, posing an intimate question.
“I would go out on the streets and interview people and ask if they ever got over their first love,” said We’re Not Really Strangers founder, Koreen Odiney.
Admittedly, she would always have her camera around her neck, since a child, and administer mock interviews. However, following her first serious heartbreak at age 16, her interviews served an actual purpose. “I needed perspective to help me deal with what I was going through.”
This was the spark that started her Instagram account @werenotreallystangers, the visualization of our inner, most vulnerable thoughts staring back at 827,000+ of us from the timeline. But Odiney’s vision of We’re Not Really Strangers started elsewhere.
“Following photographing people and asking them questions about their experiences in heartbreak, I found myself getting lost in those interviews and really enjoying it. So I kept taking pictures, and in my free time I would park in different parts of L.A. and walk for hours and talk to strangers for hours and hours. I still I have the pictures to show for it.”
Her ever-evolving photo project became a means of connecting with people in a deeper level. “My camera gave me an excuse to talk to people. You can’t just go up to anyone and be like, ‘Tell me the last time you cried.’ You can’t do that in a normal social interaction,” she said.
She’d eventually begin to share the photos and exchanges on her own Instagram account with the handle @chickenandwaffles, but it never really felt like enough. “A few of my friends were like, ‘You should probably think of a better name.’ And then, one day I photographed a complete stranger in downtown [L.A.], and after our interview he was like, ‘I like what you’re doing. You’re going to write a book one day and it’s going to be called, We’re Not Really Strangers.’ That’s how the name came to me.”
Equipped with a proper name, a chance meeting during a solo brainstorming session at a Los Angeles cafe added another step towards the then unknown end goal. The stranger and her shared what they were both working on – him, a documentary he was editing and her, a deck. Eventually, Odiney reached out to him, asking his thoughts on filming strangers asking each other questions she used during years of interviews. She’d write her questions on index cards for them to read as she filmed it.
“I wanted to create something that was not only a deck cards with questions, but an experience that was fun. [It] can make you cry, but can make you laugh and can change you at the end of it. Years later, I finally put it out as a game.”
In partnership with Bumble, a custom dating-specific expansion pack of Odiney’s “We’re Not Really Strangers” – the purpose driven game for fostering meaningful connections – will be available in-app for users until November 10. So, we decided to try it out with her. Pulling questions from the videos of people playing “We’re Not Really Strangers” and from the cards posted throughout the Instagram account, Odiney got a little vulnerable with us.
Is there any specific feeling that you miss right now?
“There’s a few. It’s funny, because right now, what’s coming to mind… hmm, sorry. This is taking me to a very personal place. A feeling that I miss right now is, and this might sound weird, but I used to always have sleepovers with my close friends. Now, since I live with my boyfriend, I don’t really have that. I kind of miss girl sleepovers, girl time, you know?
One hundred percent! Not weird at all. Not even a little bit. I feel very similarly. My girlfriends and I talk about it all the time like, ‘Before we had these boyfriends that like treat us great and were a little more broke, we spent so much time together, and it was awesome.‘
Yeah! That’s such a good point. You put it perfectly, ’cause I have the best boy…I would genuinely say I got the best boyfriend in the world and work is picking up so [I’m] going back to those times where you’re just hanging out and waking up at 1PM together, just hanging out the whole day.
Vulnerability should be earned, even in a moment.Koreen Odiney
How often do you tell people how you really are when you’re asked how are you?
I have that routine answer like, “Good.” That definitely happens to me even though I’m a big proponent of asking, “How are you, really?” But I think in normal quick interactions, I’m not in a place to be vulnerable. Even at the beginning of our phone call now, you guys were like, ‘How are you?’ I’m not going into a deep answer. It’s not the right place for that. I also think vulnerability should be earned, even in a moment. It doesn’t mean you have to earn it over years and years. At least for myself, I don’t want to break into vulnerability with someone that is not prepared for it. I think for the most part I do keep it short, but if I feel like my vulnerability is asked for and it feels safe, I’ll dig deeper. I’m really lucky to have very good people in my life, people I’m really honest with. So, with people who have earned my vulnerability, I’m very open and transparent.
When was the last time you felt most like yourself?
You know what’s funny? I’m taking product shots of my game right now, which I have never done. I know that sounds crazy, but the product shots on my website are Photoshopped pictures, and I feel very myself in this moment. I love it so much. Even being on a set where I usually am the model, because I modeled as well before the game really was taking off, I never felt myself in those moments of modeling ‘cause I just don’t feel like that is my calling or the thing I’m most passionate about. So, in this moment, I’m sitting on the ground and picking product shots of this thing I’m really passionate about with cool people I admire and I feel very myself.
Is there anyone who has changed your life but doesn’t know it right now?
So many people! That’s hard to answer, but one clear example is the [that] guy gave me the name for the project. Obviously, he helped shape my career and the trajectory and also my “why,” you know? People always ask, what’s your “why” and what you’re doing. I feel like that means that we’re not really strangers. The name, the product, this thing, but it’s also the mission statement. It shows how we’re all the same inside, so he really changed my life in that way.
What are you still trying to prove to yourself?
I know some of this sounds cheesy, but this is still my baby and still something I’m trying to prove to myself that I can do, and that I can make it happen and I can make this a business. I’m really uncomfortable in the creative realm of all of this, but now I’m learning there’s a whole business side I have to really confront and embrace. Proving to myself that I can really flourish on the business end is it.
Imperfections are lovable.Koreen Odiney
I have one more question, but it’s not from the game. Because your whole concept was birthed from a place of heartbreak following your first love, how has your view on love changed from 16-year-old you, talking to strangers about their heartbreaks, to now that you’ve turned it into your passion and work?
Oh my God, that can make me cry. That’s such a good question. I would say…oh my God, my view of love…First, I’m in my first healthy relationship, and I’ve never experienced something like this before, where I don’t feel like I have to be a perfect facade. I don’t feel like I have to put a mask on. I don’t feel like my weird parts of me are not lovable. I’ve learned that imperfections are lovable. I didn’t know that then. I think my perception of love [now] is that it can be easy, you know? It can feel easy. That’s the short answer.
I would tell my 16-year-old self to embrace the heartbreak ‘cause it’s going to give richness to the rest of your life. It’s going to give you a perspective that will make you appreciate everything. It’s really inspired me to this day, the different heartbreaks and relationships that I’ve had with people. All of it has shaped my creativity, and I feel like I was really able to use the pain and channel that into art. And, that’s what makes it real. It’s really been a journey of pain, heartbreak, and Bob Dylan songs [laughs], and all this stuff that helped me understand myself in that way allowed me to understand others better.
Love is great and it feels good, but it’s also a gift you give someone, a way you show up for someone, the acceptance of someone, the listening you give to someone, and all these things you can provide to make someone feel loved.Koreen Odiney
Also, I think another thing that happened to me right before I met him [my boyfriend] was a shift in my thinking. Before, I felt like, what can I get out of love? What can love give me, whether it be validation or whatever? It was like validation that I’m good enough, for example. It shifted to not only what can I get out of love, but what can I provide with my love? What do I have to give our relationship? I feel like that’s been a really important mind shift that happened for me as I got older, and it makes me understand that love is great and it feels good, but it’s also a gift you give someone, a way you show up for someone, the acceptance of someone, the listening you give to someone, and all these things you can provide to make someone feel loved. And, that’s just as important.