It’s safe to say that you’ve probably heard of Humans of New York, and that you’ve read some of the stories that accompany the popular site’s photos. But did you know that there is a similar project in Prague that was inspired by the New York initiative? Fittingly, that project is called Humans of Prague.
Founded by Tomas Princ, a freelance photographer and filmmaker from the Czech Republic, Humans of Prague is a photo blog that publishes the portraits and stories of people within the city. The aim of the project is to inform readers of the diversity of people, ideas, and experiences in contemporary Prague, and to highlight the encounters between Tomas and the people he meets on the city’s streets.
Curious about how this project started and what it takes to run a storytelling blog such as this, we caught up with Tomas to chat about his experience.
When did you first discover Humans of New York, and what about it stood out to you?
I think I first noticed Humans of New York (HONY) in 2012. I liked it right away — it was clear that Brandon Stanton is an empathetic listener and a great storyteller. And I liked the simple yet powerful structure of his blog posts: a photo and a caption. But the idea on which it stands, let’s say to “allow people tell their stories in their own words,” was not all that new to me. There was a project on the New York Times’ website back in 2009 called “One in Eight Million” that basically did the same thing, only in a different format of a slideshow of photographs accompanied by audio recordings from each person.
I also saw that many documentary films were striving to make the audience understand the lived reality of a certain person. One of my teachers and role models in documentary film was Jan Špáta, a Czech filmmaker who would randomly approach people on the streets, just as HONY does. But he did it in the 1960s. There’s a film called “The Greatest Wish” in which he asked young people what their greatest wish in life was. But, to return to your question, HONY stood out to me especially because I felt that its author established a simple structure for this powerful idea.
How soon after you realized this did you feel the need to start a similar project in Prague?
I discovered HONY when I was volunteering in South Korea and Kenya, not long after I finished university. When I returned home in 2012, I started working as a freelance photographer and filmmaker in Prague. I had quite a lot of free time in the beginning, and one day, I remembered this concept and thought I’d give it a try myself.
When and how did you start Humans of Prague?
I started the project in the summer of 2013. I had acquired quite the theoretical background from my studies, along with some practical experience with interviewing, but I had a lot to learn. It’s a very specific genre, after all. So I just started by walking around the city with my camera and approaching people. The good thing was that I’ve always loved all the elements of the work — exploring the city, meeting new people, and taking photos.
What has been the biggest challenge of launching, running, and planning for the site?
The most challenging part of the work has always been finding people willing to share their story with me. I made the site as simple as possible and continue to keep it this way, so I’ve never had too many challenges running it. But working on the blog has really been a series of lessons in portrait photography (especially in making use of natural light), interviewing, and editing text.
Have you gotten positive feedback about the project, and are people generally willing to talk to you and tell you their stories?
I think it’s a bit different with people who follow the blog online, and offline, on the streets. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from many different people, but when I go out to find new stories, it’s not always easy. It really depends on the individuals I encounter on the given day. Us Czechs are known to be quite reserved, and not a lot of people are willing to open up to others, let alone a stranger. The country’s communist past still affects us, in this sense. Many older people are still very suspicious and reserved when talking to people they don’t know. But sometimes, I get lucky and find open-minded and trusting people who have time to talk. Overall, I think 60 or 70 percent of people I approach refuse to talk to me. But that percentage gets a lot better in a park on a sunny summer day.
Do you have any strategies for approaching people on the street?
I wouldn’t really call it a strategy, but one of the things I do is ask, “Can I take a picture of you?” as soon as I approach people. That way, they know that I don’t want to sell them anything, and that I’m neither a beggar, nor a missionary. The main thing is to try and filter out all my worries and focus on the person and our conversation instead. I’m genuinely interested in what they’re saying, and I think that when people sense this, they open up. It’s a basic component of meaningful social interaction.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned since starting Humans of Prague?
As for my skills and know-how, I think the blog has made me a better photographer and editor. I would also say that the conversations I’ve had with strangers have reminded me that the most important thing we should care for is our health and our relationships with family and friends. It probably doesn’t sound all that surprising, but I think it’s good to have someone remind us of those things once in a while.
What has been the greatest reward, for you personally, in regards to the project?
I guess I’m happiest when a person I’ve interviewed writes to me after I publish their story and thanks me. Recently, I met up with around 50 of my respondents during the Humans of Prague book launch. To see them, people from vastly different social and cultural backgrounds, gather in one place, smiling and talking — that felt pretty good.
How has Humans of Prague changed the way you view strangers?
Prague is not that big of a city. Now that I’ve approached a few thousand people, I often run into the same people multiple times. I guess the work on the blog has made me realize that, in many cases, it’s our own decision to see and approach certain people as “strangers” instead of a neighbor who lives in our own city.
To stay up-to-date on Humans of Prague, check out the project’s Facebook page.