Peter Varga, the eyes and ears behind the Humans of Dublin photography project, sat down with Niamh O’Donoghue to discuss the ups and downs of documenting Dubliners and the future of the project.
How did you get started with Humans of Dublin?
“It was my girlfriend who persuaded me to undertake the project. I was studying in the Institute of Photography at the time, and didn’t want to go in empty-handed. I had lots of experience dealing with people through various jobs, and had developed really good communication skills and learned how to engage in conversation better. I decided to amalgamate my passion for photography with these skills and my love of Dublin. From this, Humans of Dublin was born.”
Is it a one-man show?
“To a point. I take all the photos and write the quotes, but my English wouldn’t be too great so my friend Catriona Muireann kindly edits all of the content for me.”
Some people criticise the fact that HOD is inspired by Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York, even though he has said he wants it to be open to every city. How do you feel about that?
“He encourages people to do it in different countries because he is very much a humanist, not a business orientated person. I don’t feel like I’m copying anyone; similarly I don’t feel like others copy me. If you have a passion for it, then do it.”
How do you manage to find out what makes a random stranger tick?
“The most important thing is the energy and eye-contact, and you have to have an initial interest in what the person is saying. When I first approach them I don’t tell them who I am or what I’m actually doing: instead I tell them that I’m doing a photography project where I collect random portraits of people on the street, and ask if I can take their portraits.
“They usually say yes. I’ll then show them the shots which engages them more and makes them feel relaxed. This is when I tell them that I need to connect the photos with a few sentences about the person, and ask if it’s okay to ask a few questions. I might start off by asking them what they had for breakfast that morning. I usually take more shots after I conduct my interview because their eyes are more connected with me than the initial portraits.
“Some people don’t understand what I’m trying to do, and when I try to stop them they keep going because they think I’m selling something.”
Are there times when it just doesn’t work out?
“There was one person I spoke to for three hours who wouldn’t let me take a picture. The story is inadequate without the photo. It really inspires me to hear about people who have really awful backgrounds, but who are so inspiring and positive. This one person suffered rape, was a heroin addict from childhood, suffered a family suicide and was homeless, but continued to smile
In the short-term Peter is hoping to reach a bigger audience, you can find his work here. Down the line there are plans for a Humans of Dublin book so watch this space.