Debate: Humans Of Leeds – Still a relevant concept?

Humans Of…’ pages have started to develop a bad reputation. Even the almighty Humans of New York page is beginning to lose its appeal, with the founder Brandon Stanton being labelled as exploitative and a sell out after several collections of his portraits have shot to number one on amazon and best selling lists. Even our very own Humans of Leeds has risen above the ranks of a simple Facebook page, and now has an exhibition at Lambart’s Yard.

Some people, probably those who are sceptical of the Facebook pages in the first place, may think that the gallery is one gimmick too far – and they’ve got a point. Pinned up on the walls, the exhibition teeters towards the pretentious side. It doesn’t help that most of the chosen pictures and accompanying quotes are descriptions of personal struggles and tragedies. When they’re all grouped together it feels a little overwhelming, but also quite emotionally stale. Pinning these people’s pain on a wall feels a bit odd and false. But on the other hand, having the pictures blown up and beautifully displayed really lets you appreciate the talent in the human photography, and easily displays the wonderful diversity of the city. The people feel more real when you can see them this up close.

I’m not turning my back on Humans of Leeds. The exhibition was a good way to view the pieces from a different angle, and whilst I didn’t think it was entirely successful, I still think there’s too much value in the original Facebook page to ignore. When the pieces appear sporadically on your newsfeed, they’re a reminder of the power of human empathy. They’re just a little easier to connect with this in the environment, with people commenting their reactions, or the way their attitudes have been changed by the person’s story.

Everyone has a story to tell. The exhibit emphasised this using the word ‘Sonder’; ‘the realisation that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.’ This is a fancy way of capturing the feeling that the photos evoke, the small connection we make to each person pictured. Seeing Leeds in this way emphasises the importance of community, and in general the photos serve as a reminder to be thankful for what we’ve got, or a challenge to stereotypes, a prompt to be nicer to strangers perhaps, or maybe just something that makes us smile.

Of course you don’t need to go to the exhibit. For you, it might be a step too far. But I think if you’re really starting to get peeved at the variety of ‘Humans of…’ pages popping up on your newsfeed, maybe you need to have a cup of tea and direct your grouchiness at a more worthwhile cause.

Heather Nash

A new phenomenon has reached the Leeds‘ arts scene. Humans looking at humans. No wait, humans looking at paper humans. Let‘s take a moment to note that while a photograph has the ability to capture a moment, even trigger a “spontaneous flow of emotion”, (thank you Wordsworth), in fact, it is another buffer welcoming those of us mere detached superficial mortals, to stare impolitely and inconsequentially at different individuals. Now, I have intentionally incorrectly referenced Wordsworth, who was actually directing this ideal at poetry, to highlight the indulgent enlightenment that we as a society, including me, enter into. We agree into a pact between spectator and spectacle, to open our eyes and read not only a picture, but a narrative of people that we would naturally pass, ignore and discount in the business of our lives.

I will pause, imitating what Humans of Leeds asks us as viewers to do, and actually think for a second. Humans of Leeds is created in two parts – it is formed by the photographer asking the right questions, and then capturing the right moment, in the hope of accessing close, important and even exposing information. Information that emphasises the self in the photo. However, while the images certainly convey the importance and complexities hidden in each individual, details that are made to seem intricate and vulnerable, at the same time, the emotional crux of the photo lies in the narrative that is accompanied, so, the evocation of emotion is reliant on the pathos formed in a narrative, not necessarily the ordinary construction of a photo that cleverly blurs the background surrounding the focalised. This emphasises the space and starkness between individual and society; the individual and all engulfing life.

Let us not forget that Human of Leeds is a copy – or to be kinder – a continuation of a concept and blog called Humans of New York, started by Brandon Stanton in November 2010. So, this new phrase “Humans of” has simply been implemented, imposed, onto the lovely city of Leeds. Don’t get me wrong, Leeds hosts fantastic inhabitants and people that I am grateful to constantly be meeting, and hope to meet in the future, just don’t put it under an exhibitory name that has already been used.

Awareness! Awareness! I hear you cry. Thank goodness we have awareness! I am sorry to say that I now have to adopt the voice of the single best friend that finds out her friend has just met the perfect spouse: jealousy, hidden spite and a lot of repressed frustration coated in sweetness, only to finally give in to real full blown emotions. Humans of Leeds is false awareness. A wet blanket state and experience that numbs a willingly soppy and desperate generation, an inactive middle class Internet and buffer dependent species that seek solace in the fact that while we may remain unemployed, we can add narrative to intimate structures and feign understandings of humanity.

Just as the news numbs us into having a 10 minute summary of all the necessary headlines that we need for social discussions, Humans of Leeds feeds into the numbing discourse that makes the viewer feel closer to those around them in a single glance, maybe a 10 second ponder. We rely on another‘s creative project to tell us how we can understand people, and, more to the point, demonstrate how simple questions truly open up the individual. Really all the project achieves is offering a momentary experience of the other side of the lens.


Image: Tom Joy

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