The many faces of Helsinki can now be found online.

HAS somebody approached you lately on the street and requested to take your portrait? If so, you are already familiar with the online photography project that has been shaking up Helsinki since its creation in early March. If not, you should definitely keep on reading and find out more about this new daring initiative that brings you closer to your fellow citizens.

In November 2010, after losing his job at the Chicago Board of Trade, photographer Brandon Stanton decided “it would be pretty cool” to create an exhaustive catalogue of the Big Apple’s inhabitants. He started to walk down the streets of the city taking portraits of strangers and listening to the life stories of those posing for him. Soon after he realised that by adding to the pictures some of the personal testimonies he had been collecting, the final outcome was much more captivating. And thus, the blog Humans of New York (HONY) was conceived.

Having attended numerous press events where he noticed that everyone tended to photograph the same kind of extreme people, Stanton decided to present a more diverse and balanced representation with his images. For instance, in one of the images he posted at the beginning of August, a young woman appears sitting behind an open door in a long, sheer red dress; her curly brown hair and pale skin giving the impression of delicacy. The caption underneath the portrait reads: “I’m an actor, a plus-sized model, and a boxer. But for the next four hours I’m a hostess. Because I need 100 dollars.”

Three years after the blog was launched the site has gained more than one million followers on Facebook. A book gathering Brandon’s 300 favourite portraits and captions is set to be published in mid-October.

The beginnings

Amidst the huge knock-on effect of the project literally all across the world, from Sydney to Buenos Aires, the Finnish capital now boasts its own version as well. Humans of Helsinki (HOH) has arrived in town, run by a group of ten camera lovers with quite varied backgrounds – and nationalities!

“Here in Helsinki a bunch of people had been talking about it for a while, but it was a big commitment just for one person to do,” explains Donny McCracken, one of the photographers. “One day somebody suggested working collaboratively on it and a group of photographers were interested in giving it a try. We have followed the same philosophy since the project started back in March. There are things we think are ordinary but, when you actually take the time to stop and look at them, you realise there is always something special going on. We intend to highlight the diversity of a city like Helsinki.”

Originally from Scotland, McCracken was travelling in Finland as a young man back in 1994 when one day he met somebody at a train station. A family and a long professional career in a foreign country came as a result of that fortunate encounter. So, who knows, maybe that’s when he decided talking to strangers was worth the attempt.

“Every picture I take doesn’t come from a rational idea, but rather from a connection I get with somebody,” he explains when asked about what he looks for in those people he photographs. “There may be something in that person that could make a great picture, or maybe just the way the light is falling across. I don´t think you can be too rational and say, ‘today I am going to take a picture of a bus driver’, and, since there are ten of us in the group, you don´t have to worry about not covering enough.”

Putting the shoe on the other foot for a minute, we took McCracken´s portrait and put to him some of the most interesting questions we have found on the HONY and HOH websites.

If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people what would it be?

That thing that you have been thinking about for years and years but never quite done it… Why not do it?

What was the happiest moment of your life?

I was camping in a farmer´s field in Ireland when I was 22. There was just a great feeling of freedom and independence. It was one of those moments in your life that for no great reason you always remember as everything being absolutely perfect… I could wake up the next day and do exactly what I wanted. I felt like I had everything that I possibly needed.

Is there a particular memory that represents childhood for you?

Yes, one of my strongest childhood memories is one time I was playing table-football with my dad at the age of eight. Suddenly my mother rushes into the room and says Ronald Reagan has been shot. As she switches on the TV and I turn around to look at it, my dad loudly shouts “goooal!”. So I turn back and tell him “You can’t do that!”, and he answers “Why not? You have to play to the whistle”.

What kind of feeling does taking pictures bring to your life?

For me taking pictures is similar to the feeling you get every once in a while when you are playing football and connect with the ball so sweetly that it just does exactly what you saw in your head.

Inspired portraits

Given Finns’ reputation for keeping to themselves, the website offers an intriguing way to get to know the people on the streets.

However, according to McCracken, breaking through social barriers is just one of the many things to consider when approaching strangers.

“It can be pretty challenging! You have maybe a minute at the most where you have to approach the person and try to explain what you are doing. So, on the one hand you are talking with them and looking for something to pick up on and explore in the conversation, and, on the other, you are thinking of the actual picture [the light or the composition]. At the beginning it was exhausting… but great fun as well.”

And so, now that he enjoys such a unique scope of society, how has McCracken’s perception of Helsinki changed since the project was initiated?

“All stereotypes are supposed to contain some grain of truth in a general sense, but when you start to deal with individuals, stereotypes always collapse [laughs]. Finland has the stereotype of people being very shy and reverted, so you might think they wouldn’t want to be photographed because they would see it as an intrusion. However, with this initiative we have been able to prove that, on the contrary, almost everybody is very happy to get a portrait taken and to have an opportunity to tell their stories.”

While McCracken has met many people during his time snapping photos for HOH, there was one encounter in particular that stands out.

“I especially remember one woman, who started to tell me about the old times. She had always lived in the same street and was on her way to meet some classmates she had known for 60 years. In my picture I tried to capture the dignity of a human being that has walked through the latest stretch of the way – together with the idea that, even if she had lived locally, there was a whole world inside her.”

On either side of the pond

For the time being, the main difference between Humans of Helsinki and its older cousin in New York lies on the fact that the latter bases its approach on more in-depth descriptive captions, digging a bit more into the feelings and anecdotes of the people that decide to share. But again, in Finland we are just warming up to the first steps of the initiative – so, in that sense, some pleasant turnarounds may be waiting for us further up on the road.

Far from being a temporary trend, McCracken considers that the project is here to stay for the long haul. “We are aware this is a database that we are building together, and in 50 years time it would be nice to look back at the different fashion styles and the funny mobile phones that people had [laughs]. I am convinced the project will keep going even if after some time there won´t be any of the 10 of us working on it.”



Eva Blanco