It was a sunny day in July 2015 when the Hungarian photographer Peter Varga noticed the elderly gentleman with the walking stick sitting on a blue bench on Dun Laoghaire Pier, Co. Dublin. Dressed entirely in beige — jumper, trousers and light summer coat — it is safe to assume plenty of people had passed by Bill Doran that day without so much as a second glance. Not Varga. Bill Doran was 94 when Varga first bumped into him. A former barber from Rathmines, his wife, Ann, had been dead 18 months and he had lost all zest for life. He told Varga that they shared a passion, growing tomatoes, but he had given that up since his wife died. Then a neighbour dropped in some tomato sprouts and Bill reluctantly planted them and they had grown to 16 inches high, producing ripe tomatoes. ‘To be honest with you, I didn’t think I’d see Dun Laoghaire harbour again,’ Bill told Varga, as he took his portrait. ‘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.’ Sadly, Bill passed away last April but his image is now immortalised in Varga’s new book, Humans of Dublin, which brings the tales of over 100 ordinary Dubliners to life in a stunning collection of portraits. And when Varga uploaded Bill’s portrait and story to his Humans of Dublin (HOD) Facebook page, it attracted over 22,000 ‘Likes’ and 1,264 ‘Shares’ from people touched by the simple story of love, loss and redemption. One popular comment was, ‘On a scale of one to ten, how hard are you crying reading this?’ ‘People ask me if I’m looking for interesting faces but I have found that the most uninteresting-looking people have the most interesting stories,’ says Varga.
‘You never know what you’ll get. And that’s why it’s very important to never judge people. It’s just incredible — you get something completely different, that you would never think of.’ Other tales have also hit a nerve. There was Mattress Mick’s story about his final phone call with a dying ex-girlfriend, which showed the quirky salesman in a completely different light. And when Varga was in town to test a new camera lens, he happened upon a Belfast couple getting engaged in St Stephen’s Green and captured the moment perfectly. Last year, Ballymun teenager Jamie Harrington — a cheeky chappie pictured in a loud shirt — told of how he coaxed a suicidal man down from the ledge of the Ha’penny Bridge, with the simple opener, ‘Are you OK?’. The story went viral. ‘Jamie Harrington’s reach was 2.5 million people and he received 50,000 “Likes” and it was featured on the BBC,’ says Varga, who has included himself in the coffee table book that has encapsulated contemporary Dublin. He is pictured on the last page, standing on Dalkey Island, holding a handmade sign saying, “Will you marry me?” in a story befitting the whole HOD ethos — but has a long gestation. Varga moved here from Hungary in 2007, aged 19, trained as a barista and worked in a succession of cafes. When he was 24 he got a job in a sandwich shop on Grafton Street, where he met Brazilian Maria Eugênia Souza. ‘You know when you’re working together with someone and the time is just flying because you’re talking and making jokes and everything? So this is how it started and after, I think, three months we started to go out and we decided that we were going to be together. This was four years ago now.’
It was Souza who first told him about American photographer Brandon Stanton, who was photographing strangers on the street for his blog Humans of New York. Varga bought a camera and began approaching people on the streets of Dublin. Three months later, he quit the sandwich bar job and enrolled in the Institute of Photography on Dame Street, where he flourished. ‘The teachers were the most amazing people. I never had success in school before; I wasn’t a very good student but I wasn’t a very bad student either. Having been successful in a school really gave me a lot of power and adrenaline and encouragement for the project.’ Approaching people on the street, he keeps his opening gambit short and simple. ‘I say, “I am working on a photographic project, taking portraits of random people on the streets. Do you mind if I take your portrait?”’ Then he says he needs a few sentences to go along with it and asks provocative questions like, what has been the biggest challenge of your life? Or what has been the biggest regret? Or what, apart from getting married and having children, has been your happiest moment? Then the stories begin to unfold. At the end, he takes another portrait because, he says, the first portraits never match the story.
I ask him if we Irish are all that forthcoming when it comes to being snapped on the street, given Americans are. ‘Everyone thinks that, but it’s completely the opposite,’ smiles Varga. ‘People are so open in Dublin. Brandon Stanton was saying that out of three people, two turn him down in New York. In Dublin, for me, out of ten people, two say no and eight people say yes.’ Another remarkable difference between the two countries is the degrees of separation between the subjects and those who view them on Varga’s Facebook page. Ireland is a small country in a small world. Every person whose story I read on the page has had comments beneath from several people who knew them or were related to them. My next-door-neighbour had commented on one. Then we discover that Varga lives in the same apartment block as my younger sister. With a community so small, it’s amazing some people would still try to spin him a tall tale. ‘It has already happened that people lied,’ he confirms. ‘The followers commented about it. It only happened twice though. I am not a journalist, I have no resources to go after each story and I don’t even want to. I’m a storyteller.’ He is proud of his 122,000 keen-eyed Facebook followers — 72,000 from Ireland, 43,000 of whom are from Dublin; 12,000 from the US; 9,700 from the UK; 4,000 from Australia; 2,200 from Canada; 1,200 from Germany and the remaining 21,000 from 35 other countries worldwide. ‘It’s much more about the community that is behind the Humans of Dublin than it is about me,’ he says. ‘I always think of it like I’m still the same guy who used to make coffees, but there is a huge community behind me who is pushing me.’
Varga records his interviewee, transcribes it, edits the copy then sends it for proofreading to Dubliner Caitriona Bolger, another old colleague from that Grafton Street sandwich shop. ‘It is very important to mention her because she is the most amazing girl you can ever imagine. She has her own job, she’s studying and everything. And she’s there every single night to edit the quote for me. She is making sure that whatever is going online will make sense for others, not only for me.’ Varga is good on gratitude. He has arranged to meet me in the Filmbase cafe in Temple Bar because he loves their filter coffee. (‘Can you feel the coffee?’ he asks, hand to his chest in ecstasy, half-way through our chat.) He is a people person — of course — who is warm and chatty in his heavily accented English. Slight and boyish, he listens keenly, smiles easily and holds eye contact. No wonder random strangers find him engaging enough to reveal their innermost thoughts.
‘There are so many people in Dublin who are feeling lonely and who have no one to talk to,’ he says. ‘Depression is a very big thing in Ireland and there are lots of people that need to be just listened to. ‘And they have very interesting stories, they have meaningful conversations. They just don’t have anyone to share it with.’ Varga hasn’t had it easy — his builder father walked out on the family when he was just three years old. His mother juggled raising two sons with working in a creche. ‘My mother is the kind of person that has no enemies. She has a very easy-going personality, very friendly. Probably I got this from her,’ he muses. Meanwhile, his fiancée is ‘the kind of girl that if you are going to a party you don’t have to take care of her. She’s not the kind of girl who is holding your hand when you are talking to someone. ‘She’s going away and she’s finding friends, chatting away. She’s just a very independent girl and this is exactly what I need from her. She is very positive, always smiling, always full with new ideas. I’m feeling very lucky that I found her.’ Souza was working in HR but left recently to become Varga’s project manager after the work began bringing in money. And recently, Vodafone paid Varga to take pictures with their Platinum 7 phone. He has also worked with Google, taking photographs for a Simon Community fundraising catalogue. ‘Whenever I am able to work with big companies that keeps me afloat. Then on the side I’m photographing events, for example, I work a lot for Dublin City Council, different exhibitions, things like this.’
The most difficult part of their lives in Dublin, he says, is living in rental accommodation. But Varga even has a funny story to go with this. The couple had been living — and socialising — with Peter Fitzpatrick for eight months before discovering their friend and housemate was the sole person ever to survive a fall from the Cliffs of Moher. It was only when he invited them to his family home in Clare for Souza’s birthday that he happened to mention it. Now 32 and working as a plasterer, Peter was 13 and climbing down the Cliffs of Moher with his brother Stephen and a friend when he fell 48 feet to the bottom. He broke everything on the left side of his body, his jaw had to be reconstructed and he was in hospital for almost a year. Miraculously, he made a full recovery. ‘And I said, “What the hell?! How did you never mention this before?”’ the photographer says. Of course, the story became another HOD sensation. The other main challenge they have, he says, is the language barrier — and not just with English. ‘If my mother wants to say something to Maria’s mother, she is saying it in Hungarian and I translate it to English and Maria translates it to Portuguese. ‘The first time they met we were going to Galway and that was the first time that I was actually driving in Ireland, on the other side of the road. The whole three hours driving my head wanted to explode because I wanted to focus on driving and they were talking constantly to each other, they had so many stories to tell.’
Finally, Varga and Souza told their own story, when his romantic proposal last month set pulses racing. ‘That was the hardest project of my life probably. Whenever I am working on any Humans of Dublin projects, she’s the one I come talking to about it. For this project I was five months keeping it a secret.’ After showing her the last photograph in the book, he got down on one knee in Sorrento Park, Dalkey, presenting her with a diamond ring. Unbeknownst to Souza, their photographer friend Niall Carson was shooting her reaction with a long lens — which also delighted the HOD community. Now they are planning ‘a beach wedding — something very simple’ for next summer and plan to settle down in Ireland because they ‘love it here’. He will continue to work on HOD and has lined up another job photographing people involved with the Ana Liffey Drug Project, which helps anyone affected by addiction. ‘I’m still a guy who used to make coffees. I just happen to have a nice project and I’m able to talk to these people. It’s the most amazing thing ever. It has given me so much energy for this project, to use it for something good.’
Humans of Dublin book is published by Gill Books.