'Humans of' Facebook pages go viral

The 'Humans of' Facebook pages aim to represent places as they are, without cultural stereotyping. The trend is catching on, and Hong Kong has recently joined the movement, reportsJenni Marsh

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 February, 2014, 8:28am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 10:45am

In the twilight, two teenage skateboarders flick the peace sign under a streetlamp. One wears a black beret and neck scarf, the other a red T-shirt bearing the American flag.

Welcome to Tehran.

The Iranian capital is often viewed through the prism of stories about nuclear ambitions and outspoken grand ayatollahs. But an internet phenomenon is debunking myths about Tehran, and giving those who are curious a virtual visa to explore the ancient city.

Get the picture: A street photography craze in unexpected places

Shirin Barghi, a trainee journalist who grew up in Iran and studied in New York, founded the Facebook page Humans of Tehran in 2011. It has since gone viral.

The concept was simple: she would upload snapshots of everyday life in the city of 8.3 million people, shooting things viewers wouldn't know about Iran, and showing them things they wouldn't expect.

Since then, her camera has captured Afghan refugees, street musicians in Nike tops, men dressed as the sooty-faced ancient Zoroastrian fire-keeper Hâjji Firuz, and shop assistants setting up a Christmas tree in a Tommy Hilfiger store window.

The page's tagline reads "Tehran is not as far away as you think". Barghi says: "The image people have of Iran is so demonised and divorced from the reality of the people there. I thought this sort of project was a really good way of showing normal people in Tehran."

Two years later, her site has 124,000 likes on Facebook and has spawned copycats around the world. Photographers from Aruba to Hyderabad, Jerusalem to Kurdistan, and Tokyo to Venice have been setting up their own "Humans of" pages.

The origin of the idea can be traced back to American photographer Brandon Stanton. After taking out a college loan to place an early US$3,000 bet on Barack Obama becoming US president, Stanton caught the banking world's attention, and was headhunted as a bond trader.

But he aborted his career in finance in 2010, and embarked on a "photographic census" of New York City, one human at a time.

He began with Ruben Lora, a 43-year-old maintenance worker, who was sitting outside a bar with four bottles of washing powder at his feet.

Lora told him about his previous life playing baseball in the Dominican Republic, until a motorcycle accident ended his career. "I don't know why I'm telling you this," Lora said.

From that moment, Stanton always engaged with the strangers he shot on the street. Each picture featured a quote or a story from the subject. His blog - Humans of New York - quickly went viral, and spawned a bestselling book of the same name.

With New York in his web, Stanton travelled to Iran. He photographed a man who had discovered dinosaur bones in the country, an Iranian cleric who spoke well of American people (but badly of their government). He found nomadic tribes roaming the Zagros Mountains, maintaining an ancient Persian way of life.

One day, while he was walking in a blizzard on a snowy Tehran rooftop, a man shouted up to him: "Hey, I love your Facebook page!"

Today, there are about 500 "Humans of" sites. They range in size from the ambitious Humans of China, to the micro-site Humans of Bedford, which shines a spotlight on a tiny British town. The Humans of Hong Kong page started last month, and has about 800 likes so far.

Everyone has a story to tell. Bobbie Jean Peachy is a 76-year-old grandmother living in Phoenix, Arizona, and the perfect illustration of this project's broad appeal. The retired secretary is the self-appointed curator of the global internet phenomenon, maintaining the Humans of Everywhere Big List, the only comprehensive index of the sites.

She says: "To me, it's like these people became part of my own neighbourhood. Their places in a far off world became familiar. I have no clue as to why I got so addicted to searching and finding and viewing more people to see how they live, but I did."

Many "Humans of" founders were already amateur street photographers. Finding the title gave them an established channel through which to express their ethnography.

Dani Walker has been taking pictures in Kampala, Uganda, for years. "My husband found the Humans of New York website, and he knew I would like it. It's a beautiful project as it showcases the diversity of people," she says.

Walker set up Portraits of Kampala, battling Uganda's intermittent internet to maintain the site. She loves photographing the boda boda motorcycle taxis, but her favourite shot is of an old woman who sells flour in Owino Market. Walker found her dancing and laughing while at work without any music.

"I've been thanked by many Ugandans for the way that Portraits of Kampala gives a positive glimpse of the people here," Walker says. "The media often portrays a single narrative about Africa - as a vast land with exotic animals, poor and diseased people, and a lot of war. In fact, Uganda is one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world, and has Christianity, Islam, Baha'i and Judaism, and Jainism."

Khaula Jamil, a former Fulbright scholar and videographer, feels her Humans of Karachi site - with pictures of magicians, healthy school kids and parkour practitioners - serves a similar role. "The media tells you things like 'All Pakistanis are terrorists.' I would invite anyone to visit Humans of Karachi to see how wrong you are."

But to pigeonhole the "Humans of" craze as a public relations vehicle for developing nations would be narrow-sighted. Filippo Callegaro, a 28-year-old medical student, wants to capture the Venetians who live in the water alleys away from the tourist sites; Paul Piebinga, 56, of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, posts on Facebook at 5pm each day and "doesn't worry where the project is going".

Jon Apted's Fiji page feeds those who have escaped the politically unstable but idyllic island with a reminder of home; in Dallas, Travis Montgomery's shot of a couple crying ended up being used on their wedding invitation - they had just got engaged.

In Bangkok, excitement is now mounting for a new project. Zon Mattawan Sutjaritthanarak, head of the city's "Humans of" chapter, is engaging in the Humans of Planet Earth project.

Established at the end of 2013 by New Zealand-American photographer Brandon Van Slyke, the project aims to bring together 100 photographers in 100 locations to create a collective of stories from around the world. So far, more 65 "Humans of" photographers have signed up.

Many find it hard to articulate the wildfire quality of the "Humans of" phenomenon, but Utrecht's Piebinga thinks it's simple. "Every human being wants to be seen. Seen in an authentic way, seen as they are."

Sheron Cheung, the 20-year-old founder of Humans of Hong Kong, says: "Often, we sit next to strangers on the MTR, yet we don't know anything about them.

"The culture here is to avoid conversations with strangers, but I hope through Humans of HK, people will see the diversity right where they live and breathe."

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