Through the Lens: "Humans of UChicago"

The humans behind the wildly popular Facebook page take us behind the camera.
Humans of UChicago
Photo by: 
Gordon Lew, College Visual Media Editor, Class of 2015
I think memory is the best storyteller. The things that I remember tend to be the core of the story that I want to tell about this person.
Kristin Lin

Next time you’re hanging out on the Quad, a person with a camera might try to talk to you. And if that person is Kristin Lin (Class of 2016) or Luke Sironski-White (Class of 2017), you might find your photo getting love from hundreds of strangers on the Internet. As the team behind the explosively popular Facebook page Humans of UChicago, Kristin and Luke look at our campus and see a rich network of stories—stories they want their community to hear.

As its name suggests, the page takes its inspiration from Brandon Stanton’s immensely successful Humans of New York. The format is simple: no-frills portraits of strangers out and about, plus a brief snippet of an interview. Humans of UChicago brings this premise to campus, swapping the streets and subways of NYC for snow-covered quads and the steps of the Reg. Subjects range from University students, faculty, and staff to unaffiliated Hyde Parkers; images of twentysomethings are interspersed with photos of children and the elderly. Conversations often concern majors, finals, and RSOs, but individuals also share stories that go beyond college life—tales of love, loss, and the joy of finding free food abound.

For Kristin, this format “speaks for itself”: she and Luke have never needed or wanted to promote the page because its straightforward style is so compelling on its own. Humans of UChicago has over 3600 likes on Facebook and a level of engagement most social media professionals could only dream of, but its admins don’t obsess about going viral. Kristin demurs when asked about the page’s popularity: “I don’t think I’ve felt the success of it…I’m happy if people look at it and I’m happy if people are paying attention to it. I don’t think it’s ever been something that I’ve thought about when I’ve been doing it. When I first made the page, a lot of people liked it at the very beginning, and that was a very nice, pleasant surprise.”

That beginning occurred almost a thousand miles away from the gargoyles and ginkgo trees of Hyde Park: Kristin conceived of the page in a Chipotle in her hometown of Dallas, Texas. Back in autumn of 2013, shortly before Kristin returned to Chicago for her second year in the College, she found herself reflecting on her time at school over lunch. “My first year I knew the people in my dorm and my own corner of campus, but I had this awareness that there was definitely way more in the community. I had the feeling that other people felt the same about their respective corners of campus, and how that related to what UChicago is as a larger community.”

She started brainstorming ways to get to know the University better, and, crucially, to involve her peers in the process. She recalled finding another college’s “Humans of” page on a friend’s Facebook, considered her own interest in photography, and then something clicked: “all these different thoughts suddenly culminated, like, ‘Oh, I could do this!’” She headed home and created Humans of UChicago that afternoon; she found fans almost immediately.

Initially, the page was a solo project, but Kristin soon found that many of her readers wanted to contribute. She began encouraging submissions: “The way I wanted people to get involved was just to do it on their own.” Luke, a first year at the time, started sending in photos of his own, so when Kristin was preparing to study abroad in Spring 2014 she reached out to him to maintain the page back on campus. Ever since, they’ve run Humans of UChicago together—while Luke insists that the project is “Kristin’s baby,” she emphasizes that today they share creative control. She plans to pass the page off to him entirely when she graduates in 2016.

Running a page like this on a busy UChicago schedule requires planning and discipline: Kristin blocks off an hour or two every week to wander around campus and do interviews. When it comes to choosing subjects, her approach is a mix of practical and intuitive: she looks for people who seem like they’d be free to chat for a while, but beyond that, she “just goes with [her] gut.”

After someone agrees to be photographed and interviewed, she starts with a few basic what-brings-you-here questions and goes from there. “I just listen and ask more questions based on what I find interesting about what they say. Everyone has something interesting to say.” She strives to make these interactions feel natural: “I really want the process to be comfortable for the person I’m talking to and I want it to feel somewhat organic…I want it to be a conversation.” For Kristin, that means avoiding voice recording when possible: “My favorite way is just to listen and then write it down afterwards, because I think memory is the best storyteller. The things that I remember tend to be the core of the story that I want to tell about this person.”

It’s this commitment to storytelling that makes Humans of UChicago so compelling: the page allows readers to glimpse into the minds of people they pass by every day but may never speak to. Luke muses that, in a way, these posts are “doing something that we all kind of wish we could do.” He cites the common experience “where you walk past a person and realize that someone else has a full life and you go, ‘I wonder what their life is like’”—Humans of UChicago satisfies that itch to know more, for both its photographers and its followers.

For Kristin, who describes herself as “naturally more introverted,” this process has meant learning to connect with strangers quickly, and to ask the questions that get to the heart of their experiences. Running the page has also helped her develop as an artist: she began studying photography in high school, and “it’s always been a small part of my life, and doing Humans of UChicago was a way for me to really consciously make it a part of my life.” Luke also sees the project as a way to pursue a broader interest in photography (he serves as photo editor of The South Side Weekly, shoots movies with Fire Escape Films, and hopes to one day pursue a career in media).

But while both admins find working on the page to be deeply rewarding, neither is interested in leveraging its success for personal gain. While their identities aren’t exactly a secret, they aren’t public knowledge either—Kristin and Luke make a point not to put their names anywhere on the page. Their work is highly visible here at UChicago, but they themselves stay out of the spotlight: the aim of Humans of UChicago is to showcase the vast range of voices and stories throughout the campus community, not broadcast the perspectives of two individuals. For Luke, this neutral point-of-view is central to the page’s ethos: “I think not having an agenda behind it is really nice. It’s a very free space. And if people have things to say, then they have those things to say, but we’re just trying to open that up to the rest of the campus.”

Kristin notes that this was one of the reasons she created Humans of UChicago: “I wanted it to be a place where the community would feel more concrete on campus.” Scrolling through the page gives a sense of the expansiveness of the world of the University—a typical reader will find a mix of unfamiliar faces, distant acquaintances, and, occasionally, close friends. While the project is largely a way to expose students to new and different pockets of campus, Kristin also enjoys when readers come across photos of their friends on the page: “I like that there’s a personal connection that some people can make with the photo. People can connect with it in their real lives.”

That sense of connection also runs through Kristin’s experience of the page as a photographer. “I think one of the coolest things is that after I interview someone, I won’t see them for a long time, and at some point they’ll just pop up back in my life. I really, really enjoy that. They might not remember me, but I definitely remember them.”

Want to hear more from Luke and Kristin? Take a listen to the Humans of UChicago episode of The Quad, a student-run podcast about campus life.

Tagged: students, Photography