Why images of strangers make us feel less alone

Jan 17, 2014

If you’re walking around Ann Arbor or Detroit these days, you should know:  a total stranger may come up and ask to take your picture.

They’ll snap a few shots. Maybe ask how your day is going.

Then they’ll post it all on Facebook. And hundreds, possibly even thousands of people will see it.

That’s because two photographers – one in each city – are building a growing fan base around these daily street photos.

And they're making people feel connected to the strangers they walk by every day.

Kids stop to pose for Tom Culver's Humans of Detroit photo blog.
Kids stop to pose for Tom Culver's Humans of Detroit photo blog.
Credit Tom Culver

In Detroit, “Hi! Can I take your photo?” is often met with “Are you FBI?”

One of those photographers is Tom Culver.

He’s a tall, shy-ish 24-year-old with red, hipster sideburns and mustache.

Basically, he looks exactly like what he is: a Wayne State University photography 

Tom Culver is one of the photographers behind Humans of Detroit.
Tom Culver is one of the photographers behind Humans of Detroit.
Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio

student.

But when Culver asks random people on Detroit’s streets if he can take their photo, they can be a little suspicious.

“A common question I’ll get is if I’m, like, an FBI agent, if I’m a cop, if I work with the newspaper,” Culver says.  “And a lot of people are skeptical. And then I’ll have to explain the project, and once I do they’re like, 'oh, of course.'”

That project is called “Humans of Detroit.” It’s among a landslide of spin-off blogs around the world inspired by “Humans of New York.”

It's a simple idea, but it's hard to look away

In 2010, Brandon Stanton started “Humans of New York” with a simple premise: every day, he posts a photo of a New Yorker he sees on the street.

He asks them a couple questions, too – what are you doing? What do you want out of life? What’s your saddest memory?

When Tom Culver saw the blog, he was hooked.

"I think it's making the world smaller, in a way,” he says. “You go on the web site and you can read about what's happening in this person's life in New York, or Lebanon, or in Detroit. You like, love these stories. I get goose bumps from reading these stories. That's powerful."

Feeling like Detroit was ripe for some street-level representation that didn't make the city look like an apocalyptic hellhole, Culver and a team of fellow Wayne State artists started “Humans of Detroit.”

The rules are simple: every day, a different Detroiter’s picture is posted.

They can only be photographed outside, and only within the city’s limits.

Detroiters in pictures: "Trying to keep big dreams for ourselves"

Some weeks Culver spends hours walking around the city. He says he’s seen a few drug deals, some prostitution, but hasn’t had any trouble.

The most difficult part, he says, is how few people you actually come across in some of the emptier parts of Detroit.

A photo from Humans of Detroit's Facebook page.
A photo from Humans of Detroit's Facebook page.
Credit Nicole Hayden for Humans of Detroit

On the day I tag along with Culver, he plays it safe, sticking to Midtown. A man and a woman are the only people walking on a block just a stone’s throw from Wayne State's campus.

“Hi, can I take your picture?” Culver asks.

(When he started out, he asked people “Hi, can I have a moment of your time?” But that flopped. “You could be the president, and if people don’t know you, they’re not going to [say yes to that.]”)

The couple glances at each other, then says, ok. Culver starts snapping photos.

The couple says their names are Floyd and Tina. Floyd is wearing a blue windbreaker. He puts his arm around Tina as Culver angles his camera.  

“Hold still, one more. Ok, do you guys want to tell me a little about yourselves?”

“I'm currently going to school at Wayne County Community college,” says Floyd.  “I’m a school man. I love school. And she wants to own her own business someday."

"Yeah. A beauty salon!" says Tina.

A couple in Detroit's Midtown stop to talk with Culver. "We're just trying to keep big dreams for ourselves," the man says.
A couple in Detroit's Midtown stop to talk with Culver. "We're just trying to keep big dreams for ourselves," the man says.
Credit Tom Culver

"We're just trying to keep big dreams for ourselves, do everything it'll take to meet our goals." 

Culver tosses out another question: “Who would you say is your biggest influence?”

“I would have to say Jesus Christ,” Floyd answers. “I mean, we could say our parents, but without him, we wouldn't have them. It’s just good to know that there’s a higher power, who’s looking out for his own, you know?”

Tina nods in agreement. 

4,380 fans makes "Humans of Ann Arbor" a local hit      

About a year ago, in Ann Arbor, another photographer had a similar idea.

Susan K. Campbell is a professional photographer, and when she and her family moved to Ann Arbor from Chicago, she experienced a little culture shock.

Like Culver, Campbell’s a passionate follower of “Humans of New York.” So she started her own photo blog on Facebook as a way to get to know her new town.

Now, it has 4,380 hundred likes on Facebook, at least when this story was published.

Susan Campbell's self-portrait, as posted on Humans of Ann Arbor's Facebook page
Susan Campbell's self-portrait, as posted on Humans of Ann Arbor's Facebook page
Credit Susan K. Campbell

And Campbell thinks part of this is because people are looking for a way to feel connected: to the mother next to them on bus, or the homeless guy on the corner.

"I think people go online to feel something to connect to,” says Campbell.  

“And I think Humans of Ann Arbor, Humans of New York, Humans of Detroit, those are all pages that people can go see a person who reminds them of themselves and see people who remind them of their friends and connect to whatever their story is." 

Campbell tries to keep her portraits diverse - she'll talk with and take photos of panhandlers or young couples.

When it comes to couples (romantic, of course, but also a parent and child or two friends) she has a go-to question: 

"What is the thing that you like most about her?" she asks a lean guy who looks like he’s in his 20’s.

He takes a moment to think, as his girlfriend looks up at him.

"Um, the way she moves? I just can't explain it. It just makes my molecules move the right way,” he laughs.

 When it comes to couples, Campbell likes to ask the question: What's your favorite thing about him/her?
When it comes to couples, Campbell likes to ask the question: What's your favorite thing about him/her?
Credit Susan K. Campbell

Not everyone Campbell stops says yes, of course. And even those who do can be a little standoffish.

An older man, who says he’s a professor at the University of Michigan, seems skeptical of her and her camera.

But that doesn’t slow Campbell down.

"What's the happiest memory that you have of your life?" she asks.

"My happiest memory? Um ... probably meeting my wife."

"How did you meet her?"

"I met her at the university. At Yale. Long ago," the man says.

"Do you remember when you saw her for the first time?"

"Yeah, but I'm embarrassed," he laughs.

"You don't have to tell me!"

"No, I won't!"

He’s not the most forthcoming subject Campbell’s ever had.

But he walks away from Campbell with a smile on his face, maybe remembering that first encounter with the love of his life.