On the side: Humans of Melbourne street photography project takes off

CHOOSING a career in a field different to what you studied in order to “pay the bills” doesn’t mean you’ve sold out. Grace Yew speaks to Bombay-born Humans of Melbourne founder Kannagi Bhatt about her project that’s inspired a network of street photographers to capture Melbourne life in all its beauty.

A Dracula's Cabaret employee. Photo: Humans of Melbourne

A Dracula’s Cabaret employee. Photo: Humans of Melbourne

Meet the Humans Of movement. It began in 2010 with Humans of New York and gained a strong social media following, inspiring hundreds of offshoots and thousands of glimpses into strangers’ lives from all over the world.

Kannagi Bhatt is the Bombay-born founder of Humans of Melbourne. Why did she choose Melbourne? Kannagi believes the city has an indefinable quality that distinguishes it from other Australian cities.

“I might not have started this anywhere else in Australia. For me, Melbourne just has that special something that makes you want to capture its image in photos,” she says.

Tony “Jackie” Chan: accountant and karaoke champion. Photo: Humans of Melbourne

Tony “Jackie” Chan: accountant and karaoke champion. Photo: Humans of Melbourne

Unlike the original Humans of New York founder Brandon Stanton, who describes himself as “broke and living very cheaply”, Kannagi isn’t a full-time photojournalist.

The Griffith University graduate works as a student adviser at Open Universities Australia.

I’ve always been really passionate about photojournalism and I majored in it. But it’s really hard to get a job in that field and you have to pay the bills. I didn’t want to give up photography, so I do my own thing on a freelance basis.

“I’ve always been really passionate about photojournalism and I majored in it,” she says.

“But it’s really hard to get a job in that field and you have to pay the bills. I didn’t want to give up photography, so I do my own thing on a freelance basis.”

A family on holiday from Punjab, India. Photo: Humans of Melbourne

A family on holiday from Punjab, India. Photo: Humans of Melbourne

Most of the individuals featured in Humans of Melbourne photos have a striking sense of fashion, but Kannagi says there is no specific selection criteria.

“It’s just anybody that stands out to me that day. It could be anything like somebody who has a striking hair colour. Once I even took a picture of a guy just because he had a nice smile.”

Spontaneity, she says, can be “automatically interesting like when you’re walking down the street and someone starts talking to you”.

Stopping people on the street for a conversation seems to be Kannagi’s modus operandi. She admits this can be alarming, but jokes that being a petite female makes the encounter less intimidating.

Kannagi’s approach is working well. Both locals and visitors are keen to join Humans of Melbourne, revealing a heartwarming sense of openness and honesty.

“I spoke to a visiting Punjabi family some time ago,” she says.

“I asked them what they liked about Melbourne. They couldn’t pick one thing. They were so enthusiastic and overwhelmed by how much they liked the city.”

"One Billion Rising" at Federation Square. Photo: Humans of Melbourne

“One Billion Rising” at Federation Square. Photo: Humans of Melbourne

To date, Kannagi has captured several fun local trends on camera, such as Melbourne’s own Gangnam Style dancers and animal buskers.

However, Humans of Melbourne’s photos have also implicitly directed attention to issues such as gender equality and religious freedom.

Kannagi was present at One Billion Rising this February and took a commemorative snapshot of the Melburnian feminists who gathered to protest against violence against women.

Humans of Melbourne’s images also provide a positive reflection of the religious diversity present in multicultural Melbourne, ranging from Jewish history buffs to promoters of newly created religions.

One photo from last year, featuring a young man passing out Islamic pamphlets, was met with minor backlash from one Facebook commentator.

“He was just passing out pamphlets to people, explaining the good aspects of his religion,” Kannagi replied in response to the Facebook post last October.

“I think it’s awesome because he’s not afraid to do so, even though a lot of the world currently has a negative bias against Islam and many people will take his message the wrong way.”

Free Advice. Photo: Humans of Melbourne

Free Advice. Photo: Humans of Melbourne

The Humans Of movement’s appeal lies in its innate positivism. The project revolves around spontaneous celebration of the human experience and Melbourne is no exception to this rule.

I didn’t think I’d end up with so many followers. I just take every picture as it comes… It’s very honest. You just ask people what their stories are, and they tell you.

“I didn’t think I’d end up with so many followers. I just take every picture as it comes,” Kannagi says.

“It’s very honest. You just ask people what their stories are, and they tell you.”

The movement allows the people of Melbourne to find common ground with individuals who would otherwise be strangers.

“You get to learn things about others, and it unites us,” Kannagi says.

“Besides, I think that even if every city in the world has a Humans Of, all humans are unique, and photographers should do what they can to capture that vibe.”

For more photos and how you can get involved in this project, visit the Humans of Melbourne Facebook page

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