Of all the addictive, distracting things on the Internet, it’s hard to feel guilty about spending a few moments following the “Humans of” photography movement.
What started as Facebook page and one photographer’s mission to photograph 10,000 people in New York City has become a worldwide photography movement. Humans of New York, founded in 2010 by photographer Brandon Stanton, has sparked countless photographers to establish their own “Humans of” websites and Facebook pages for their own cities – Stanton’s page now has 1.7 million “Likes.” Stanton has gone on to publish a book, but “Humans of” pages are not maintained for profit. Not for fame. Just for the raw, storytelling power in street photography.
Essentially, photographers approach strangers on the street, ask to take a photo and engage with that stranger – the conversations range from topical to intimate. The result is the unification of hundreds of thousands of unique voices and images from around the world that all seem to point towards the same, simple and humbling message – or, rather, a reminder:
We’re not really strangers, we’re all fellow humans. Every day is human awareness day.
Humans of San Antonio (HOSA), founded by local photographer Michael Cirlos in October 2012, follows the same format as most “Humans of” projects but has the unique goal of shedding light on the diversity and culture of downtown San Antonio.
“Art history, cultural heritage and diversity begin to fade the further you travel away from the city center,” Cirlos explains in an HOSA informational video (see below). “The Humans of san Antonio project hopes to re-familiarize and re-define not only my perspective of San Antonio, but to challenge the perspectives of others who consistently choose to excuse themselves from the downtown area. The main goal of the humans of San Antonio project is to promote diversity by photographing and interviewing everyday people in order to showcase their individual and cultural differences to people within San Antonio and to people around the world.”
What’s a typical day for you look like when working on the HOSA project? Do you usually have an action plan/agenda or is your work more spontaneous?
Before I decide to shoot for the day, I glance at the page to see who I’ve been photographing. I’m trying to keep myself from falling into a routine. I need to photograph all kinds of people so my subjects have to be different. Once I have an idea of who I need to photograph for the day, I’ll head downtown and try to find that person.
How do you decide whom to take a photo of? What are you looking for as you walk the streets of downtown San Antonio?
I usually know ahead of time what kind of person I need to photograph and I try my best to meet that objective. Sometimes my objective can be very specific. For example, if I need to photograph a female dressed in a suit then that’s my objective for the day. But if I run into someone interesting along the way, I try to capture that person as well. I’m looking for something that represents our diversity and culture downtown San Antonio.
You’ve photographed some of San Antonio’s iconic downtown characters (See: “Hispanic Elvis”) alongside folks of all age, economic status and outward appearance (hipsters, homeless, suits, children, etc). How do you first approach subjects about your project? How often do they say no?
I’m usually on my bicycle and I just ride up to the person and ask if I can I take their photo for Humans of San Antonio. I learned that a straight up approach is better than anything else. My approach was definitely a learning experience for me and something I really had to get used to. I was very nervous and awkward in the beginning – that led to rejection about half the time. I’m more comfortable and confident now so most people say yes if they have the time. They usually ask what HOSA is about and so I give them a short description.
Some photos are accompanied with a simple statement of where it was taken (“Seen on Commerce”) and some have a more in-depth story partnered with the image (“What has been the worst experience of your life?”). Do these conversations come naturally or do you have a set list of engaging questions?
We have a list of questions that we like to rotate around. Scott Ball has photographed for HOSA for three months now and he has a set of questions that he likes to use more often than others. I pretty much do the same thing. However, I tend to start with an open-ended question and once the interaction becomes sinuous I start to ask more intimate/specific questions about experiences in their life. At this point the human connection becomes natural and patient, allowing the opportunity for a friendly discussion about life.
What is the most surprising answer/conversation you’ve had so far?
It is really hard to say. I’ve been getting some really great answers. I always think about the homeless man I met who was upset, pacing back and forth across the El Sol Bakery on South Presa Street. After I took his photo he said, “The orange light from the sun will burn you, but the white light you see here will illuminate the good in the world.”
He was pointing to the light on the sidewalk. It wasn’t just the context that inspired me, but more importantly the way it was said. I think photographers from around the world who started a “Humans of” project for their respective cities have had similar experiences.
Tell us about Liz Ruiz. What did your interaction with her tell you about HOSA’s power and potential impact?
(After this photo was posted to HOSA’s Facebook, Cirlos followed up with the woman pictured, Liz Ruiz, by connecting Ruiz with people willing to help her recoup her lost money.)
The interaction showed me that HOSA has become a project that provides the everyday person an opportunity to be heard and appreciated. Liz showed me her courage that day. I believe people in San Antonio want to build a stronger community in the downtown area. After posting her story on Facebook, it was awesome to see people wanting to give back.
How has HOSA evolved since you started last year?
HOSA has been growing steadily. Right now we are a team of four people. Stella Savage and I are co-founders. She helps me find ways to develop HOSA internally, and I do the photography part along with Scott Ball. Monica Sosa is our marketing director. We recently applied to the Awesome SA grant and plan to organize a community meal at one of the city parks before the end of the year.
In the video (above), you describe San Antonio as a “segregated city” and attribute this to the spread of suburbia, where you yourself grew up. Could you further describe how the migration to suburbia has affected San Antonio culture as a whole?
San Antonio ranks as the seventh largest city in the United States, but ranks 30th in urbanization. I believe outward expansion has affected our city culture negatively. The new economy sees opportunity to increase bottom-line profit margins leading to the decline of city character and the rise of suburban appeal. Is this an issue in cities where land is not as plentiful?
When you’re not working on HOSA, how do you spend your time?
I enjoy being part of the revitalization of the downtown community and culture so HOSA is my free time. However, I don’t limit my project just to photography; this is about changing people’s perspectives on how great this city is.
San Antonio has been described as a “City on the Rise” – What would you say is the most important thing that needs to happen in order for us to be considered a world-class city? How do we “rise?”
The premise that we are not a world class city is mythical, and this is the kind of mindset is keeping us from reaching our full potential. HOSA is an attempt to break the (common misconception) that San Antonio doesn’t have as much or more to offer than another world class city.
What advice would you give to someone about to move to San Antonio?