We speak to the person behind the preconception-challenging photography project that looks at you: Humans of Leeds
Ever found yourself walking down the street and wondering what a stranger might be thinking? As humans, we’re conditioned to make snap judgments on people’s appearances and attitudes, but often have no idea what is going through their heads, what struggles they carry, or the good they are capable of.
As a city steeped in multiculturalism, one of Leeds finest attributes is its diverse population – people of all ages, colours, abilities, and religions contribute to our society in a variety of inspirational and valuable ways. It’s part of the joy of big city life, and it’s celebrated in all its glory with Humans Of Leeds.
Leeds holds a special place in many people’s heart; it grabs them and doesn’t let go
A social media project inspired by the hugely successful pioneering New York project, Humans of Leeds launched in 2013 as a way to captures people’s image alongside their innermost thoughts, providing a source of awe, inspiration, humour and tears.
“I kept on seeing HONY posts on my feed and I loved the idea of street portraits”, explains the project’s photographer, known as ‘Z’. “I’d just finished a 365 series that involved taking a photograph a day, for an entire year. It really gave me the skills and the enthusiasm to do more. I started researching the street photography genre with past and present greats, people like Chris Kilip and Niall McDiarmid. There wasn’t anything being documented in Leeds - I saw the opportunity, and I took it.”
From tales of great emotional upheaval to quirky experiences, Humans Of Leeds covers a great range of personal anecdotes, often digging quite deep into a person’s true essence. Raising questions and challenging preconceptions of political and gender orientation, poverty and relationships, education and mental health, the kindness of strangers who gather in the comments is a true faith-restorer, full of Leeds folk all offering their own advice, condolence or experiences in solidarity.
Z’s off-camera sympathetic questioning prompts but never pries, instead encouraging people to open up of their own accord, often seeking out stories completely randomly on the street, just as you see in the images.
“There’s always something which draws me to someone; sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s nothing more than instinct” he says. “In general, the stories of people overcoming great struggles and going onto achieve something tend to strike the biggest chord. At the same time, they’re easy for people to react to because it’s all written out for them to consume. I like the stories where there isn’t an immediate message but with careful thought one can be brought out, and reflected on.
“Every story is unique. Some get greater attention and engagement than others, but it doesn’t make the others less interesting, or less important. We all have stories that make us who we are.”
Now with over 47,000 page likes on Facebook and a dedicated Tumblr following, Humans Of Leeds provides something of a therapy for both those pictured and those who simply follow along. For Z himself, he’s grateful for the person it’s helped them become (“I’m much more aware and open about my interactions with people now”) and hopes that Humans Of Leeds can grow both in geography and in scope for collaborations with particular causes and communities.
In difficult political times, the project is playing an instrumental part in offering catharsis and conversation at its very first exhibition in celebration of Refugee week. Taking place at Leeds Left Bank and including a talk from Z themselves, the showreel will offer representation of some of the most underrepresented figures of Leeds Society.
Travel and relocation are natural human behaviours, and are responsible for the multicultural societies we live in today
“The theme of the exhibition is ‘Migration’, or ‘Movement’. In the world of post-Brexit, I want the project to challenge and undermine negative views of foreigners.” Z enthuses. “Travel and relocation are natural human behaviours, and are responsible for the multicultural societies we live in today. To think of ourselves as static and unchanging populations is to negate the obvious: humans have always moved about, and that is partly what makes us who we are.
Leeds holds a special place in many people’s heart; it grabs them and doesn’t let go. It has the same draw of the bigger cities but a greater abundance of charm and homeliness. A city wouldn’t be a city without its people of course, and they’re the most friendliest and generous bunch I’ve ever come across.”