Photographer Peter Varga asks real people to share their stories for his hugely popular Humans of Dublin project. Here, our reporter meets the capital’s best listener
What would you do if a stranger stopped you on the street, asked to take your picture and to hear your story?
For the past year-and-a-half, photographer Peter Varga has been doing just that, and hundreds of people have said yes. As well as collecting stories from people on the streets of the capital, he has been posting them on his Facebook page, Humans of Dublin, which has more than 90,000 followers.
The project is inspired by Humans of New York, the hugely popular blog and Facebook page created by Brandon Stanton, which has amassed nearly 17 million likes and resulted in two best-selling books.
Now, the Irish iteration is enjoying more success than ever, and several posts, including a heart-rending story about love lost from Dublin retailer ‘Mattress Mick’, have gone viral.
Peter (28) has also been making a name for himself, and in the past couple of weeks he has made appearances on The Ryan Tubridy Show on RTÉ radio and The Ray D’Arcy Show on television.
From Budapest in Hungary, Peter originally came to Dublin for three months on a summer job when he was 19. He had studied car mechanics, but ended up abandoning it and staying in Ireland.
He got a job as a barista, and while working in a coffee shop, he came across a photographer, a regular customer who became something of a mentor to the young man with a keen interest in photography. “Before I started this (Humans of Dublin), the customer was giving me little projects to express emotions rather than just taking a picture. I found it really hard but very exciting, so this is how I fell in love with photography,” he says.
Peter applied for a one-year course at the Dublin-based Institute of Photography, but, he explains: “I didn’t want to go there empty-handed. I wanted to find a project that would make use of my creativity and my communication skills. My girlfriend introduced me to Humans of New York, and I really liked the concept behind it, so I started Humans of Dublin to do that.”
That was in 2014 and, up until three months ago, Peter was still working at the café. Now, Humans of Dublin has become a full-time job – and although he doesn’t make money directly from the project, it has helped raise his profile, which has led to other collaborations with major brands including Google. He receives help from a copy-editor, Caitriona Bolger, when writing the Facebook posts, but it is otherwise a one-man show.
A typical day for Peter means commuting into the city from his home in Cherrywood, in south Dublin, and walking around looking for people to interview. Sometimes he varies the backdrop by heading outside the city centre to Ballymun or Dún Laoghaire.
“To be honest, it doesn’t really matter where you are, there are stories everywhere,” he says. “I can talk to anyone and get a story out of them. If I don’t get a story, that’s my fault, not the person, because everyone has a story to tell.”
When he approaches a stranger on the street, he says he doesn’t initially disclose what he’s working on. “I just tell them I have to collect portraits of random people on the street,” he explains. “I ask if they would mind if I took their picture, and usually they say yes.”
Amazingly, he says just two of every 10 people he asks turn him down. Peter will then ask a few questions, which he reveals are strikingly personal: “Can you describe one of the happiest memories of your life? Can you tell me about your regrets? If you could go back five or 10 years, what advice would you give your younger self?”
It seems unlikely that anyone would be willing to divulge such private information to a person they had just met, but Peter insists: “They will easily tell me. I don’t think it’s even about the questions I’m asking, it’s about the energy I’m giving off, and because I’m genuinely interested in them. There is no trick behind it. People think I have magic questions but it’s about your energy more than anything.”
His interviews range from five minutes to an hour in length, as Peter asks more and more probing questions to extract the story. He will later distil these down to a story of just a few hundred words which will appear alongside a portrait of the person, whose name is not given (see right).
When choosing who he should approach, he says: “In the beginning, I was looking for cool and interesting-looking people, but they don’t always have the best stories. The less interesting-looking people usually have amazing stories.”
The ‘Humans of’ projects rely heavily on viral internet culture, and have grown to become a social media phenomenon. Peter has just recently developed a stand-alone website for Humans of Dublin, but believes Facebook is the best platform for his work.
“This project isn’t just about me. Facebook makes it a community, and I think it’s most important for people to be able to comment and have reactions to it. Sometimes people get very attached to particularly sensitive topics.
“In the beginning, I was very conscious of how many likes each post got, but now I don’t pay too much attention to it,” he says. In spite of this, Peter can comfortably cite the number of likes certain posts gather, and laments the lack of attention the more upsetting posts receive. “Usually the sad stories don’t get too many likes, but they are still powerful and important stories to tell.”
The ones that tend to go viral are stories of people who have overcome traumatic events in their past. Why does he think these kinds of stories resonate so much with people?
“I think it’s the nature of people,” Peter observes. “Some 77pc of my followers are women, and I think it’s because of the type of project and how it really goes for the emotions. Girls are more receptive to emotional stories.”
However, Peter himself does not remain unaffected by the stories he hears. “When I’m interviewing a person and they get emotional, yeah, I get emotional too, but I try to never show it to the person. Of course, when I go home I’ll talk to my girlfriend about it. But it’s a mixture of happiness and sadness. There are moments that are draining, but those are balanced out. Like any kind of work, you have good days and bad days.”
Peter’s enthusiasm for his work is palpable, and he is currently working on a Humans of Dublin book. “I’m really proud of this project. It’s the first project I’ve ever done – I didn’t even have a camera two years ago,” he says.
“These interviews give me a new way of seeing the world and seeing people. You easily judge people when you’re walking on the streets, but since I’ve met with all these different people, I’ve learned not to judge people. It doesn’t matter to me what they say. I can feel sympathy in the same way for a very successful person and a homeless person.
“This project gives you a new perspective, and you start to see heroes on the street who are going through really hard times and they still stand up. I feel like this project has made me more wise about life and about happiness. It’s a different way of seeing life.”
“In the back garden we used to grow tomato plants, but she died about 18 months ago so I stopped growing them. She was a month younger than me, and I was already surprised that she passed away before me, so I was just waiting for my turn. A few months later my neighbours arrived with a box of tomato plants, about 12 little sprouts, and he said they’re not giving up on me. I was looking down at these little sprouts and thinking how the hell I’m going to plant them if I can’t even bend down anymore. Anyway, I thought I’d give it a try! I spend half the day in the glasshouse planting them. They’re about 16 inches high now, and the tomatoes are beautiful on them. I started to grow these new ones as well, what do you call them? Cherry tomatoes… To be honest with you, I didn’t think I’d see Dún Laoghaire harbour again, but my son and his wife forced me out here. They went for a walk, but they bought me a tea and an ice-cream, and now that I’m here, I feel happy.”
“I was just on my way to the American sweet shop to buy some Gatorade, when I saw this guy in his 30s sitting on the ledge of the bridge. I just thought, “Wow…” I stopped and asked him if he was OK, but I knew from the look in his eyes he wasn’t, and he didn’t say anything either, but I saw tears coming from his eyes. I pleaded with him for a while to come down and sit on the steps, and eventually he did. We sat on the sidewalk on the south side of the Liffey and talked for about 45 minutes, about what was happening to him, why was he feeling that way… I couldn’t leave him there alone, but I had to go, so I was going to ring an ambulance. I told him they could help him feel better. But he was like, “Please, please don’t call them, I’m fine, I just want to walk around for a while, I’m gonna be OK!” I told him to please let me ring an ambulance, that I wouldn’t sleep knowing he was just walking around alone. So I rang it, and he was taken to St James’ Hospital. I got his number so I would know what was going on with him for a good while… And about three months ago, he texted me that his wife is pregnant, they’re having a boy, and they’re naming him after me. Can you believe that? They’re going to name their child after me… He said in that moment that I approached him, he was just about to jump, and those few words saved his life. That they’re still ringing in his head every day. “Are you OK?” I can’t really understand how these few words could save his life, but he told me, “Imagine if nobody ever asked you those words…”
“What’s the secret to a long-lasting relationship?”
“Don’t ask me, we’re a fresh couple, we’re together only six months!”
“May I ask how you met?”
“On a holiday in the Bahamas. We both missed the bus back to the village!”
“I’ll tell you a story about how lucky I was! Last year on the 19th of November I was running across the road on Dorset Street and a female hit me with her automobile. She hit me from the back, and I had a broken shoulder, two broken ribs and few scratches, but I tell you what! I think somebody was looking after me from up there… I didn’t hurt anything from my shoulders up! I even remember people screaming around me… I’m sure they thought I was dead! I only spent eight weeks in the hospital. I was a great patient, I was running around after four weeks, and now I’m back again! I walk a lot to keep myself fit, you know? The only thing is my shoulder hurts a bit and it’s hard to dress up, but who cares? I’m still alive!”
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