Oliver Friedmann interviews Olivia Cable and reflects on his experiences with Humans of Sydney.
Sydney and Naypyidaw are vastly different places. One is a sprawling cultural capital in one of the world’s more progressive liberal democracies, that happens to boast some of the best health and wellbeing records globally. The other is a 10 year old planned political homestay that most believe was built as a monument for a heavily criticised military dictatorship in a country that boasts – well, the longest running civil war in history. So, what in the world do the two have in common?
It might seem like an empty observation, but that is what is beautiful about the ‘Humans of’ projects: they transform seemingly meaningless observations into profound stories.
Brandon Stanton is an American photojournalist that started a photographic revolution. Since 2010, Brandon has taken to the streets of New York, approached strangers, asked to take their photograph and learnt a little bit about how they live. The result? A Facebook page that has over 17 million followers, a New York Times Best Selling book and a voice that is almost unparalleled artistically in its authenticity and storytelling ability.
When I said that Brandon started a revolution, it wasn’t a figure of speech. There are currently hundreds of ‘Humans of’ projects all over the world – Humans of Paris, London, Aruba, Minneapolis, Oran, Dubai, Karachi, Sydney and Naypyidaw. That’s where Olivia Cable and I come in.
In 2014, I took over the Humans of Sydney page. In 2015, Olivia founded Humans of Naypyidaw. Where’s Naypyidaw? It’s the capital city of Myanmar and a city that was purpose built ten years ago as an administrative centre for the government and military. It’s the Canberra of Myanmar. Last week, Olivia and I caught up for the first time and shared some of our experiences.
“I can remember one of the first stories I heard was from a guy who was a builder. He had built parliament. He was telling me how he was abseiling down the sides of the building, how many snakes there were, how many people were killed by snake bites, how many were electrocuted, how many fell down the constructions sites.”
I remember one of the first stories I ever heard. I spoke to a young mother who was with her children in the park close to Manly beach. I asked her what the hardest thing was about being a mother. She said, “The hardest part is hoping that you are doing it right… hoping you’re doing it right for these two little people in your care.” Very different stories. Very different people.
And yet so much of the time, the stories we capture tell the same thing. When you’re given the limelight in a private situation with a photographer that cares to listen, more often than not, people open up. Filtering through the Humans of Naypyidaw and Humans of Sydney pages for this piece, I can’t help but see that there is something intrinsically human about all of the stories. That is what’s so powerful about the ‘Humans of’ projects. They transcend all social, political, religious or racial situations and point at the heart of the human condition. But in talking to Olivia, we did recognise that there were some differences in the way we perceived our chosen cities, and reasons for why we captured our stories in the first place.
“When you’re in Sydney, you know kind of who lives there. We get a sense of what the city is. No one knows that about Naypyidaw. There’s no history of Naypyidaw.”
In a city like Sydney, you can kind of guess who you’re going to meet over the course of a day. What you’re trying to do is cut through the stereotypes, and find the human story inside. To showcase individuality. In Naypyidaw, the faces themselves are undiscovered. You’re flying into unknown human territory with no roadmap. Both can be just as exciting.
“Very few Myanmar people have been to Naypyidaw and foreigners don’t stay there for more than a couple of days. I was living in Yangon and was going to Naypyidaw on the weekends. I would come back and tell my housemate what I had seen and he would say ‘I can’t believe this, it goes against everything we are told about the city.’ It is a dictatorial paradise and so its assumed that people there are just supporters of the regime. The whole idea of Humans of Naypyidaw is to say hold on, lets fill in the gaps. There’s people that live outside the administrative zones. Its not as weird and sterile as people think. I think that if anywhere is appropriate for a Humans of page, its Naypyidaw. Its ghost cities. Sydney should be so easy!”
The ‘Humans of’ projects are essentially a social census of cities. They teach us that it is in fact people that define a place. It is the stories that create the atmosphere. It is the hands and feet that build the towers, the bridges, the laws. It is the voices that shape the way we perceive where we live. They bring a sense of reality and humanity to communities and individuals globally, to ensure that we don’t only see the stereotypes.
If there was more attention focused on the human component of poverty, war and struggle in Asia, there would be more responsibility taken on the part of individuals to create change. Such projects are all about generating empathy. They teach us that we are all human. Social digital tools like this engage our community on so many levels, and I think it is in the power of this type of story telling that people are inspired to instigate real change.