Written by – PILAR PEDRINELLI

 

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“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“What if there is no beholder?”

Holy Motors, Leos Carax

It was Brandon Stanton with Humans of New York, in the summer of 2010, to answer this question. Through a photographic census of New York City, Brandon, image after image, story after story, gives us an opportunity to see every day what we would be missing if we stopped observing.

Brandon was immediately followed all around the world by several other observers. Among them, in Europe, Marco Massa in Rome (Humans of Rome), Stefano D’Andrea and Andrea Tilaro in Milan (Umani a Milano) and Eytan Levi and Marco Hazan in Paris (Humans of Paris). I asked them directly the reason why. Someone who decided to let the desire to observe he had since he was a child to take over his shyness, getting in the game. Someone who simply had hope, the desire to see his city through a new lens. Someone who believed in this project from the very beginning, understanding that it could have been a source of inspiration for others. Stories that deal with great difficulties of course, given the countless fears that pervade Europeans when we encounter the privacy issue and the different cultural practices that make us more and more closed off and more reluctant to share something spontaneously regarding ourselves. There are many similarities, though. Rome, for example, which shares with New York the diversity of its population, from tourists to immigrants, a place in which you shout instead of talking, but which is intact, with a uniqueness that lays within not only its the place but also within its people. Milan, who never ceases to amaze, hiding pieces of the world in unlikely spots. Paris, which since 1920 has gambled everything with New York, especially when it comes to daydreaming.

 Humans of New york

 

To better understand how these similarities are prevailing difficulties, I posed some questions directly to these 2.0 narrators.

 

How do you manage in approaching the “Humans”?

  HOR. The key in approaching a stranger lies, naturally, not so much in what you’re saying but in how you’re saying it. It’s a delicate balance: too many words said too quickly will make you look like a salesman and the person you’re approaching will erect a defensive barrier. In contrast, a slow and clumsy way of speaking will not trigger the wanted spark of curiosity. There must be a reason if I want to take a picture of someone. I try to explain that my reason is backed by good intentions, using a “harmless” tone of voice and leveling myself to the same emotional level as the person in front of me. Obviously after a question like, “Could I take your picture?” the majority of us become suspicious and filled with negative thoughts. It’s just our survival instinct that comes into action. Often showing the pictures I took or showing my blog can turn me from being a predator to a simple mate survival. With the eldest, instead, words are more effective. They are the only people I do not directly ask for a photo of. I try to get in touch by talking about what surrounds us, and then slowly come to a more personal level. Older people need time to make friends because they are used to discovering the world this way. The level of depth you get from their stories, though, is often the largest, and in the end they will always leave you with a smile, happy to have freed a memory, a story that hadn’t been shared perhaps in years. Every person is different, requiring a different approach that will get you different results. ” We all do, all over the world, the same things, but in a different way,” to paraphrase an oft-repeated phrase by Steve McCurry. Some are easily approachable, some aren’t, but no one can live a life without a glimmer of uniqueness, the stereotype is just a tool for a laugh every now and then.

UAM. The Milanesi have had to adapt to a structurally horrible climate, centuries of invasions and theft of water (they removed the Olona, the Lambro and the Seveso have been used as landfill by industries and the Navigli were buried), each large city ​​has a river, so it is natural that they have a hard rind. But when I arrive and I smile, they smile back. Even, and especially, the “new” Milanesi.

HOP. At first it was very difficult to approach people we wanted to photograph, but now we are able to recognize more or less those who are willing to accept and those who will say no to our attempt to report. A pity, however, because those are usually the most interesting individuals.

 humans of rome

What is the strangest thing that has happened to you, since you started the project (the story, the stare or the occasion that has stricken you the most)?

HOR. I want to tell a story I have never told anyone, because it wasn’t shown in a picture. On the Aventino, near the famous Orange Garden, there is a homeless woman. I had the most extensive and intelligent conversation with her. She is an American woman who has lived here for many years. A wealth of knowledge, ranging from philosophy to astrophysics, from history to art, all wrapped up in a secretive person, who lives in a hidden cobblestone driveway that she defends as if it were a fortress. Every tourist that, passing through the spot, decides to bring the camera to the eye to take a picture is going to be yelled at. I managed to talk to her, but not to take her photo. After nearly two hours of conversation I was turned away aggressively from another homeless who said he was her companion. She tried to calm him down but then had to wave me off, almost as if she were in total submission to this other person. This incident opened my mind, making ​​me realize how much everyone’s life can be long and complicated.

UAM. A florist told me that he posed for a calendar nearly nude, together with some shopkeepers of the street, in order to raise funds in order to research a rare disease a girl in the area suffered from. A beautiful story. Then there’s the girl smiling whom I asked for a photo, saying that she seemed to be a nice person and she said she thanked me and it was such a long time since the last time she had been told that, and then she began to cry. Another nice story. Good stories are not necessarily uplifting.

HOP. I would say the weirdest thing that has happened to us since we started Humans of Paris was the “appetite” for knowledge shown by those who follow us, since many wanted to read stories both in English and in French. In the beginning, since less than 3% of the people on the page spoke French, we wrote posts only in English. Then we began to receive numerous requests from non-French people who wanted to know how a particular sentence would have sounded like in the original language. Clearly we immediately satisfied their request, with great pleasure.

 

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How does it feel to be so intimate with a person, to hear their story and then take a snapshot? How do you manage to transfer so many emotions into a single photo?

HOR. It feels empathic. In a photo I took of Vasil, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan in the 80s, I had to hold back tears. I took that picture 200 meters from my house. I kept telling myself this thing on the way home. It is a significant fact, to me. I think that in order to convey emotions with a picture, you have to imagine the thoughts of who you are photographing. When someone tells me a story I make a movie in my head, and the person suddenly becomes an actor. You are able to transfer emotions also by observing behaviors and the way we move or talk. I try to capture the moment when I find something that characterizes the person, something that makes it simpler to the eye than what is actually very complex. When I do succeed in this, because obviously I don’t always, I feel like the happiest person on earth.

UAM. It’s a mystery. As a writer, I’m used to pontificate but my need to “report” (which we all have and which I have decided to answer to this way) put me in a less arrogant position. It’s amazing how you can become “intimate” with someone in just two minutes. Perhaps it is the indifference for the project, perhaps the adulation I show, since I look for people who inspire beauty in their own ways, or just because maybe, unwillingly, I answer the need of the other person, the need to be stopped on the street and virtually “hugged”. It is the ancient theme of the unknown who becomes known, it loses its entire menacing aura.

HOP. Sometimes we face very long conversations with the people we photograph, sometimes up to half an hour each. When they have a lot to tell, we encourage them to send us a message with everything they feel to share. We try to translate their emotions using dialogues rather than descriptions with the aim to remain as faithful as possible to what they tell us, both the spoken and unspoken.

 

HOP

Bus stop. A person is about to get on while you’re asking them for a photo. Why should this person decide to wait for the next one in order to reveal themselves and their memories to you?

HOR. I think that habit and curiosity are two of the most powerful aspects of human nature. There is a big difference, though, between the two. While habit builds, curiosity breaks. And there is nothing more satisfying and instinctive than breaking. If I can light a spark of curiosity in someone, then this person is able to stop doing almost everything, as long as this spark remains alive. At first glance this person may be curious about me, about what I’m doing. What I have to do at that point is quickly overturn this curiosity. Being curious about us is so overwhelming, pulling out a memory, or an appearance or a personality aspect. I’m sure this is worth the wait of a bus, maybe even two. Of course three is too much if we are in Rome (Romans will understand).

UAM. Because of my beautiful face. So, probably, this person will take the bus, but I would take a picture right away if she put her head out the window.

HOP. It totally depends on the kind of person. There are people who wouldn’t even consider the idea of our request, while there are others (and fortunately many more) who are so open that they would stop for any reason. I think having so many followers on the page makes us all the more serious, and shows more of us than we could ever portray.

Something you would like to say to anyone, anywhere.
 HOR. Go for broke. In everything you want, even if you are not sure. The more variants you put into your life, the more results you have. It’s simple math.

UAM. I would just like to listen to their stories. But there is one thing I must say, I cannot tolerate the piangina.
HOP. Hey, can I take your photo?

I found myself looking at some pictures on these blogs before, and I tried to think of the reason why they have had all of this success. Is it just another social network phenomenon? Maybe. Yet I have the distinct feeling that there is something more behind it all, something stronger, more intense, such as a need. A desperate need to tell a story. Here it is what they all have in common, all these “Humans of” are creating possibilities, new opportunities, and they are giving us the opportunity to undress from conventions, for once. I read somewhere that we open much more easily with a stranger, perhaps because we are not afraid of his judgment, perhaps because we carry so many things inside that sooner or later we burst, with anyone. I believe the same happens with these photos. The subjects are strangers, and somehow we trust them. Why is that? Because they are ordinary people who remind us of how extraordinary normality can be. We are so often bombarded with extremism, everywhere, that we forget that there is someone out there just like us. Someone who has committed our same mistakes, someone who has our same hopes, someone who has had the courage to do something or to not do it, someone with our same disappointments and our same joys, someone who is going to deal with something that we have already addressed and someone who has already done it. I think the success of these blogs is due to the fact that we look at a stranger and yet it is as if we are looking at ourselves, to the fact that there is someone who has given us the opportunity to face what we think we know but that we have never really known well enough. Below the photos no one judges, or at least just a small minority that still has not learned to accept itself. Everyone is thankful for something, someone tags a friend, someone else encourages the subject of the photo. The most illuminating comment I found was “I need to start looking at the world like this again”. I think that by talking to herself this person got the point that everyone should be getting from this project: look again at the person on the tram seated next to us, at the person in the grocery store near our house, because there lies the magic, in the everyday acts, not in past époques, not in the extremism. Hemingway said there was nothing extraordinary about writing, you just had to sit and bleed. It’s exactly what these subjects and these photographers do in these pictures, they sit and bleed together, giving us a wonderful way to face our demons with stories dealing with everyday life.

During Brandon’s daily walks the same question often arises: “If you could give a large group of people a piece of advice what would you say?”.

I would like to take a shot at it and tempt to answer it as well.

“Bleed. It is the only way wounds can be seen and treated. ”

Thanks to:
Humans of New York (http://www.humansofnewyork.com)
Portraits of Boston (
http://portraitsofboston.com)
Humans of Paris (
http://humansofparis.wordpress.com)
Umani a Milano (
http://umaniamilano.tumblr.com)
Humans of Rome (
http://humansofrome.wordpress.com)

My mother, who bleeds too often.

 

2 Responses

  1. Andrew Ferenczi

    BTW, theres a Humans of Tehran as well (and probably many more out there). I don’t know any of them personally but im sure it wouldn’t be too hard to get a hold of them for a follow-up interview. These guys and their subjects deserve as much recognition as we can give! Truly, thank you all for your work

    Reply
    • Virginia Stagni

      we will try to contact them asap. thanks for your great idea!
      thanks for your comment andrew 😉 hope you ‘ll keep following us!

      Reply

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