At this point, the cons for social media outweigh the pros. Just look at Mark Sanford's recent Facebook update for a lesson in oversharing. But if there is one redeeming quality of social media, it's the potential it has to humanize strangers.
The Humans of New York (HONY) project is a perfect example. A photographic project described as "an exhaustive catalogue of New York City's inhabitants," the HONY website has 9.5 million likes on Facebook and 1.7 million followers on Instagram. A lone photographer named Brandon — no last name — started out in 2010 just wanting to catalog the citizens of New York City. Four years later, the portraits and their accompanying quotes serve as a reminder that we are all human beings with our own joys and afflictions. In part, this is a result of the quotes that range from the beautifully brief to near-novellas. It's heartbreakingly poignant stuff, and several locals have started comparable campaigns in Charleston.
Douglas Carr Cunningham and Iveta Dzurenova-Butler are two of them. The Holy City photographers are working on an exhibit called Charleston: One City, One Soul. Together, Cunningham, a former U.S. Navy photojournalist, and Dzurenova-Butler, a photographer originally from Slovakia, have roamed everywhere from Waterfront Park to the Cistern Yard, snapping one or two well-timed photographs of people. As of late August the pair had captured 70 subjects. Their goal is 100.
They only use medium format film and ask their subjects three questions: Where are you going? Where are you coming from? What is your favorite thing?
Some responses are simple, "To the park" or "To Heaven." Others are more existential. It's those answers, the ones with depth, that they're looking for. Cunningham and Dzurenova-Butler have favorites, like a photograph of a laughing couple. "Her favorite thing was a peacock feather. His favorite thing was her," says Cunningham.
The idea behind Charleston: One City, One Soul came from Cunningham and Dzurenova-Butler's desire to highlight the fact that we have more in common than we don't. Cunningham explains, "We have similar or the same goals, desires, hopes, and dreams. We are a people living together under the umbrella of America, individuals forming the wonderful whole of the United States. Therefore, we must be united, despite differences, because our differences are secondary." At its heart, One City, One Soul is a campaign of compassion.
For other fans of HONY, their endeavors are an exercise in flattery. Take Jeb Brigman. He loved the project so much, he started humansofcharleston.com. It has the look and feel of Humans of New York, but instead of just sharing one quote with an image of a citizen, the site's creator gives excerpts from a conversation.
Brigman liked HONY for its humanizing element and says, jokingly, "Charleston's just an old creepy city with no people in it!" Brigman feels Humans of Charleston are what really make the city, well, the city.
The second HONY duplication is a Facebook and Google+ page started by Brenda Peart, who moved to Charleston from Brooklyn four years ago. Peart, noted for the tripods she carries and straw hat she always wears, has been attending events around town and taking photos, capturing affairs as varied as the Bridge Run to a Gullah basket-making class.
"Folks have gotten used to me around town," she says. "If not, I flash a smile." Peart thinks that Charleston is "an event type of town," and she is just there to document the good times. She's not posting any prose with the images. No real conversation happens with her subject matter.
"Like I said, that smile and let them know I'm from Humans of Charleston. Usually it's all in a wave," Peart says. "I don't like posed shots, but maybe give folks a moment, especially if they're eating."
Peart's first Humans of Charleston profile image — taken at an art show — was of Ade Ofunniyin, the grandson of famous local blacksmith Philip Simmons.
But it's not all artsy plays on a cultural meme. Just as we knew Blur's "Song 2" (of "woo hoo" fame) would end up in a Michelob Ultra commercial, the "Humans of" idea has made it into a local PR campaign. Tom Aspinwall is the one-man show behind Charleston World Heritage, an effort to get World Heritage designation from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for Charleston. To promote the World Heritage effort, Aspinwall hired Row Collective, a digital branding agency who specializes in social media and PR. Row Collective loosely based their marketing plan on Humans of New York to get the word out. The way the campaign works is a member of Row Collective takes a quick photo of a local for Instagram (@chsworldheritage) and captions it with the subject matter's favorite thing about the city. One of the company's founders, Haley Shaw, says, "We focus on why people love Charleston. The hashtag is #ourcharleston. We're building a conversation around why Charleston deserves an honor like gaining World Heritage status." Incidentally, Aspinwall is in two of the 38 images (as of press time).
Shaw's subjects are limited to those at the Charleston Farmers Market. She doesn't have a set spiel she uses when walking up to people, but her questions center around the idea of "civic pride." "People get really excited to answer the question," she says. And why wouldn't they be.
In our selfie-driven era, perhaps it makes sense that this introspective art form has caught fire. And with five different locals creating their own projects around the "Humans of" theme, one thing is clear: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.