Photo courtesy of Humans of Warwick

Humans of Warwick: Telling our Stories

Warwick University is full of humans. Maahwish Mirza, a third-year English Literature student at the university, wants to show the Warwick community just how special this is. That’s the basis of her new blog, Humans of Warwick University. It is a photography blog that features portraits of people on campus and tells their stories through the captions. Mirza will stop random people she sees around campus and ask if she can take their picture. Then she’ll start a conversation. If the person looks busy it will be a quick question (though quick doesn’t mean easy), but if not, she’ll get them talking. From these encounters Maahwish will produce a picture and a caption to along with it and post in on the Humans of Warwick Facebook page.

The blog, abbreviated HOW, is modeled after the acclaimed Humans of New York blog that was started by Brandon Stanton in 2010. The Humans of New York is made up of a collection of street portraits taken in New York City and has a following of nearly 1.8 million people on Facebook. But Humans of Warwick, whilst designed in the same way, is necessarily different: it exists in the much more insulated context of Warwick University. With a population of over 22,000 students and a reputation as one of the top universities in the country, the university is obviously very different from the vast, anonymous environment of New York City.

As such, it provides a completely different backdrop for a blog such as HOW. How can this type of public photo-blog succeed in an environment where the subjects don’t have the guarantee of anonymity? These circumstances mean the photos risk losing some of their objective quality. The blog’s founder sees it differently; “Warwick is a new university, and so often people complain that there isn’t the sense of community or tradition that you get at older universities. But this actually creates a lot of possibility. 20,000 students give us the opportunity to build our own sense of community. Here, you’re surrounded by stories and different kinds of people. All you have to do is ask.”

The point of the blog, says Maahwish, is to get Warwick students to connect with the humanity that surrounds them. As Maahwish is in her final year of studying English Literature, she is used to this exploring the world of the humanities. “I feel like if you do an English Lit degree you’re taught to think in a much more questioning and challenging way than society in general”, she says. But, she says, what’s makes the blog so special is that it is not subject-specific. The point is to achieve “questioning of the humanities” by students who aren’t necessarily engaging their creative sides at university. “University isn’t just about mechanically getting your degree and leaving,” she says. “I started HOW because I felt like I had been neglecting my love of photography and I wanted to rejuvenate my creative side.”

The author, Alexandra Karlsson, was interviewed by Humans of Warwick: photo courtesy of Humans of Warwick

The author, Alexandra Karlsson, was interviewed by Humans of Warwick: photo courtesy of Humans of Warwick

The creative nature of the blog is actually what makes it so successful. It appeals to people of all interests and backgrounds because it relates to them at a very basic level. “People love hearing stories,” says Maahwish. “Some of the conversations I’ve had while doing the blog have had a real impact on me.” It’s not an easy task – the idea of approaching a random person on the street with a camera and a voice recorder and asking them to open up to you seems quite risqué to the average person. It is a scary thing to answer a question like, “What was the saddest moment of your life?” and know that your answer will be uploaded online, along with a picture of you. And yet Maahwish’s subjects have all been more than willing to do this. “It’s a bit of an investigation into psychology. People have shared really difficult things with me. It can be easier to do this with a stranger than with the people who know you best.” Indeed, looking at the pictures on the Humans of Warwick website, you can see why the subjects might enjoy this kind of exposure. Being represented by one picture and one story – a story that you choose to tell – can be a way of reinventing yourself.

For the readers, it’s one quick glimpse into the life of a person in a very fluid, fast-moving world. “I find it so interesting that you can take something someone says and that that one thing put out of context can be extremely meaningful to other people.” The sense of connection that this kind of blog creates between the people in the pictures and the people that look at them is quite remarkable. The Humans of New York blog has won numerous awards, including the Webby Award for “Best Use of Photography” and the People’s Voice Award for “Best Cultural Blog”. At Warwick this sense of connection goes even further, since it’s a real possibility that you might know or run into someone featured on the blog. This makes Humans of Warwick so unique to some people. Christiane Donovan, a first year Film and Literature student, says HOW broadens her perspective of people at Warwick: “The blog reminds us that we all have a story, all have our own hopes and fears. So much goes on at university that we can easily get caught up in our selves. Reading the blog made me realize how many interesting people I walk past everyday without giving them a second thought.”

Maahwish has had the same feeling with the people she’s interviewed. “The first person I interviewed for the blog was a man named John Gilmore. He was in the Arts Centre reading a book and was so nice when I photographed him. Someone later commented on the blog post identifying him, and I realized it was a professor in my department!” The experience of interviewing a professor, not as a professor but as a ‘Human of Warwick’, is one of the most gratifying aspects of the blog for Maahwish. Getting to know the real person under their formal exterior is liberating, and it’s yet another way that a blog like HOW can make you think twice about people you would usually write off or ignore in the street. And if that doesn’t make you look up, perhaps having a camera and voice recorder shoved into your face will! Having been interviewed for the blog myself, I can admit there’s a certain amount of pressure to say something cool or revolutionary. But Maahwish’s knack for natural conversation brings the situation back to what it’s supposed to be: one human of Warwick talking to another, perhaps both being stared at by everyone else hurrying to their next lecture.

To check out the Humans of Warwick facebook page follow the hyperlink below:



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