‘Humans of’ series break down barriers

Headley and the creator of Humans of Vassar engage in conversation about their respective "Humans of" series. Yvette Hu/The Miscellany News

The captions that accompany the New Yorkers’ photos on the “Humans of New York” series have always intrigued me, and they have inspired many spin-offs, both large and small. The trend has now hit Vassar, as two students lead their off-shoots in the campus and the community.

The campus-oriented spotlight started organically in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. A first-year attending a coffeehouse event, the first of its kind, struck up a conversation with Dominic, a security guard at the Loeb. The conversation was short, but the student, who wishes to remain anonymous, was touched. “It was just enough to make me super curious about the rest of his life,” they said. “So I kind of decided from that point that I wanted to focus on people on campus who don’t get their stories told that often.” A few days later, they launched an Instagram account under the username humansofvassarcollege. The first post featured Dominic.

Around the same time, Miscellany News Assistant News Editor Tiana Headley ’22 was brainstorming ways for students to engage beyond the Vassar bubble with Poughkeepsie. She merged this desire with her work on The Miscellany News to create a recurring biweekly feature called “Humans of Poughkeepsie.” “It’s no secret that most people aren’t coming off this campus [to] meet someone face-to-face and actually get to know them,” she said. “They’re going for food, they’re going for shopping, they’re going for Community-Engaged Learning… People really enjoy reading those stories and kind of getting a tiny essence [of] that person’s personhood,” Headley said.

In a joint conversation, both creators described how they go about capturing genuine introspections and personalities. They stressed asking open-ended questions. For instance, Headley has asked interviewees to discuss their proudest accomplishment, a time when they felt scared and a person they admire. The original photographs demonstrate their subjects’ natural demeanor.

In contrast to the Humans of New York page, the interviewing processes here have been a little more premeditated. She worked off-campus for her first subject, Tree Arrington, and immediately thought of him for her first feature. “I just remember thinking, ‘This is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met,’” she reflected. “[Arrington is] profound with every other sentence he says, so that’s why I chose him to start off with.” Her second and most recent subject, Nadia Bennett, is her current hairstylist. “Despite my desire to have that happen, I don’t live in the city of Poughkeepsie, geographically,” she said. “I do find myself deliberately thinking, ‘Who do I have in my network of people? Who do I know who knows someone who’s interesting?’”

In practice, though, making these connections is harder than it should be. It’s easy to fall into a routine of interacting with the same people every day, and, conversely, not interacting with people whose paths don’t intersect with yours. In response, the Humans of Vassar creator wants to focus on creating a familiarity between themselves, their subjects, and anyone who does come across their posts. Although the page has had only three posts so far with limited viewership, I’ve recognized the subjects around campus, and I’ve appreciated the feeling of a distant but comforting familiarity, particularly as a first-year.

For Headley, on the other hand, the project’s goal isn’t to increase connectivity within Vassar. Instead, she wants to begin breaking down the Vassar bubble. “[T]he way I pitched it was putting a human face on the city in which we reside,” she said. “It’s no secret that [a number] of people on this campus see Poughkeepsie as this place of blighted buildings, crumbling infrastructure, Black and brown people who are…left to their vices with crime,” she said. Many Vassar students don’t interact with the Poughkeepsie community, and this, Headley thinks, is critical to the persistence of these stereotypes. There’s no easy solution to this problem, but Headley hopes that the exposure her feature series brings might be a small step toward dispelling these images. “I wouldn’t describe what I’m doing as giving people a voice because they already have a voice,” she explained, “but more so making that voice accessible to the Vassar campus.”

After I spoke to the creators of both “Humans Of” series in and around campus, I stopped by the Loeb to see if I could find Dominic, the subject of the first Humans of Vassar post. As soon as I walked in, I approached him amid a group of museum-goers to get a comment for this piece. We only spoke for a few minutes, but I could tell what compelled the Humans creator to interview him first. When I asked Dominic how he was doing, he told me, “Life is beautiful.” Then I asked him what he thought of the Instagram project. “I think it’s fascinating and can lead to a lot of different things,” he said. “I know that we sometimes have a really terrible superficiality toward one another…any step taken to go into greater depth and have more substance is always worthwhile.” This, I think, is the consensus between Humans of Poughkeepsie and Humans of Vassar: the desire to add depth to our interactions with other people.

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