NACS bus driver turns photography into lost and found

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A Northwest Allen County Schools bus driver has found the perfect combination between her school-year job and her love of photography. What started as a way to pass the time has become an art project as much as a handy tool for students.

While most of her time outside the bus route is spent shooting family photos, senior pictures and, more recently, weddings, Natalie Hoffman’s newest photography project focuses on capturing discarded or misplaced possessions — book bags, hats, flash drives, jewelry, toys, handwritten notes, retainers, house keys and other items left behind by her students.

“You name it, I’ve found it,” Hoffman said.

The project, which she has deemed “Found on the Bus,” began as a “boredom project” on a rainy day last year. Hoffman, who owns her own photography business, Blue Umbrella Photography, had her camera with her while waiting for her Carroll High School students to get out of school. Because of the weather, the other drivers stayed on their buses rather than socializing like they typically do. Looking for something to pass the time, Hoffman decided to snap some photos of the various trinkets she typically finds lying around her bus.

“I thought I would just put them on the floor where I found them and take a picture. I posted (the photos) to Facebook and everybody loved them, so I kept doing it,” Hoffman said. “Maybe once a week or every two weeks I’ll just bring my camera along, and whatever hasn’t been claimed by the kids, I’ll set it up and crawl under the seats for some of the shots. If I happen to find something on the day I have my camera, I won’t touch it, I’ll just photograph it.”

Hoffman used to work in marketing at Fort Wayne Newspapers before starting a position at Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly. About eight years ago, she bought her first “really nice camera.” After taking her niece’s senior photos at Salomon Farm one year, more and more people in the area began contacting her for commission work.

“I didn’t mean to become a photographer, it just kind of happened,” she said, adding that after the first couple years, she decided to quit her job and commit her time solely to her photography.

Before long, she decided to pick up some more part-time work, applying for a bus driver position at NACS on the recommendation of her sister-in-law, who also drives a bus.

“I told her it wasn’t for me, but I did the training and started my first year of bus driving and absolutely loved it,” she said.

Hoffman buses students to and from Hickory Center Elementary School, Carroll Middle School and Carroll High School, and since the hours are in the morning and late afternoon, she still has time to focus on her personal business.

“That’s what’s beautiful about doing photography. I have that space in the day where I have time to edit my pictures, and then being off at 4:30 I can still go do evening photo shoots when the sun is setting. It’s kind of perfect for me,” she said.

Hoffman is a Carroll High School graduate and, over the past eight years, has done numerous family photo shoots and senior portraits for Northwest Allen County clients in Fort Wayne and Huntertown. Many of the middle and high school students she drives to school and their families have also commissioned her work. As a result, she has garnered a large local following on social media — adding another utility to her “Found on the Bus” project.

She recently created an Instagram page dedicated solely to the project, which has served as a lost and found where students and their parents can identify lost items.

“Some middle and high school students follow my photography page on Instagram, and some of them have identified their things,” she said.

Though the venture has been a success, Hoffman’s favorite moments are when her students turn in lost items before she finds them. Recently, a first-grader on her bus found a high school student’s wallet containing a necklace and a $100 Visa card, which he turned in at the front of the bus.

“Those are the kinds of things that make me love what I do — seeing the kids making good choices and growing up,” Hoffman said.

Her Instagram page can be found @FoundOnTheBus.