CNN Photos

The real Sin City

How do you sum up Las Vegas in a word? Colorful, perhaps? Pulsating? Surreal?

For Mette Frandsen, none of those apply exactly. Through her eyes – or, more specifically, through her camera lens – Sin City is, above all else, real.

Her collection of photos from the sun-splashed, neon-charged Nevada city is not what you’d expect in a glossy tourist brochure full of over-the-top scenes, taut bodies and high-stakes fun. Nor is it what you’d envision in a “Hangover”-esque movie, overrun with excess, despair and depravity.

Sure, Las Vegas’ public identity contains all of the above. But behind the scenes, Frandsen has focused on those who work hard, think big and hold their heads high to make this city what it truly is.

Those individuals – not the well-documented glitz and glamour – made the Danish photographer fall in love with Las Vegas.

“I miss it every day. … The people are so caring, and they are so nice,” Frandsen said. “(And there are) lots of dreamers.”

How she ended up chronicling Las Vegas – a city she had never been to, more than 5,300 miles from her home base in Copenhagen, Denmark – speaks to her love of travel, her passion for photography and her innate curiosity.

“I just observe life, and I really like people,” she explained.

So why Las Vegas – a city associated more with tackiness than grittiness, where people stereotypically go to lose themselves rather than find their true identity?

When first asked that question, Frandsen light-heartedly chimed back, “Because I didn’t want to go, so I went.” Then she followed up that, given all the “crazy facts and stories,” Las Vegas is a logical place for a creative person to explore.

“I really wanted to … see if it was … something (other) than what I see (on TV and in movies),” Frandsen said. “How is life where every day is a party day? How is this place where you only hear about the dreams?”

So she set off to find the real Las Vegas, spending one month there in 2010 and another in 2011. Her mission wasn’t to track down tourists but to see the people that make the city hum, both out front and behind the scenes, and use her camera to tell their stories as honestly as she could.

Frandsen insisted she started with no grand plan or preconceptions. Her mission was simply to go out, find people and, using her camera, tell their stories and that of the city.

“I shoot with my stomach, with my heart,” she said. “I use my legs and my feet, and walk all day and all night.”

Her Las Vegas images show how a stark scene and an earnest glance can grab one’s attention, without the need for camera tricks, bright colors or boundless energy.

Character and earnestness are seen in a serious-looking boxer fresh off working out at a local boxing club, and in heavily tattooed twins with matching sunglasses and goatees. A Mexican immigrant sleeping under a lion-adorned blanket in between jobs speaks to a key, if sometimes overlooked part of the Las Vegas economy. A fence opening up onto a sparse landscape and, behind it, the pyramid-shaped Luxor casino and other elements of the city’s notable nightlife sets the city’s craziness in the context of its oft-barren, lifeless desert surroundings.

“You just have to walk half a mile from the Strip, and then there’s nothing, nobody,” Frandsen said.

Using black-and-white photos to showcase a place so identified with color might seem unconventional. But for Frandsen, it was a way to help peel away the artifice, “to put out the light and just see what’s really there.”

She said: “You get distracted by the colors. In black and white, you really see what you see.”

Even without extra flash or hues, Frandsen’s images make clear that Las Vegas is not like other cities. It can be quirkier, weirder: After all, in most downtowns you won’t find Superman staring up at the skyline, or a man who goes by “Spider-Man” hawking tickets to tourists, or a life-sized doll astride a swing.

Yes, those and other strange snapshots are unique to Las Vegas. Yet Frandsen said she was struck by the contrast between such fantastical scenes in one place to mundane normalcy in the next, from seemingly boundless “energy and then the lack of energy” a few steps away.

Above all, Frandsen said, what impresses her most about Las Vegas is its people. Stereotypes aside, they are not all extravagant partygoers; they’re not always drunk or one lucky card away from a fortune. They are more likely to be hard workers and big dreamers – or, in some cases, owners of “lost dreams” – who refuse to give up.

Those are the types of people Frandsen says she is drawn to: the kind who, the more you get to know them, the more you care for them.

“I don’t want the tourists, I want the locals,” she said. “I wanted (to photograph) everybody that you could feel something for.”

- Greg Botelho, CNN