Photographer shares glimpses into lives of area residentsWritten by Holly Tuey | | firstname.lastname@example.org
This winter has left many people stuck at home for days, looking for ways to entertain themselves. It was under such circumstances that Joni Johnson started a photography project that’s quickly gaining momentum in the Toledo area.
Humans of Toledo was born during the early January snowstorm that resulted in county snow emergencies across Northwest Ohio. Johnson said she posted on Facebook that she was going to start a new project, hoping the announcement would help hold her accountable. The idea is now a Facebook page and a blog.
To launch Humans of Toledo, Johnson started with people she knew. She takes a picture and asks a few questions, then posts the photo and a quote online. Johnson said she started with the idea that the project would be a résumé-builder. As a broadcast journalism student at Bowling Green State University, she thought of it as a chance to practice interviewing people.
“It’s more than that for me now,” she said. “For the first time in my life, whether I know the direction of this, I feel like I have purpose. I want to be an instrument for people to tell their stories.”
Johnson’s inspiration was Humans of New York, a blog and Facebook page started by Brandon Stanton in 2010. The tagline of the project is “New York City, one story at a time.”
“The creator of that page captures people’s images off the streets of New York City,” Johnson said. “He captures every emotion and gets them to open up.”
The concept clearly resonates. More than 3 million people have liked Humans of New York’s Facebook page and Stanton recently published a book of photos that shot to the top of The New York Times’ best-seller list. There are now hundreds of spinoff sites, including Ann Arbor, Cincinnati, Detroit, Tehran, Paris, Spain and more. Now Toledo has one as well.
Some of the people featured on Humans of Toledo were simply fans of the page whom Johnson asked to participate. Others came forward and asked her.
John Amato, owner of local T-shirt company JUPMODE, was one of Johnson’s early subjects. He said he doesn’t consider himself photogenic, but Johnson made him feel comfortable.
“Humans of Toledo is awesome,” Amato said. “Joni has done a great job showing the diversity of Toledo and the connections we all share. It’s exactly like it sounds — a very humanizing project. I still follow every new post.”
The point of the page is to show everyday people in Toledo, Johnson said. Those featured are not celebrities, political figures or millionaires. They are identified only by first name.
“You don’t have to be doing something grandiose,” Johnson said. “There is value in every person. … It contributes to Toledo feeling more like a home, helps it shine, even boosts morale.”
She’s not the only one who feels that way.
“What [Johnson] is doing, whether she realizes or not, is something fantastic for our city,” Jeremy Baumhower posted on the Facebook page. Baumhower, a Toledo Free Press columnist, was one of the earliest Facebook fans of Johnson’s project and has also been the subject of one of her portraits. “Humans of Toledo gives us a positive face and incredible words,” he said. “This site does something so pure, so sweet. Everyone has a story and it acts like a public scrapbook.”
Ryan Bunch, performing and literary arts coordinator at The Arts Commission, agreed that Humans of Toledo is a great way to promote the thoughts and ideas of “regular people” throughout the city — but he hopes to see more diversity in the subjects as it goes on.
“Everyone that lives here has an interesting story and emotional connection to the city, and I think this is a great way to present that and connect people, especially those who don’t know one another or aren’t as involved in the change happening here as some,” said Bunch, who was photographed by Johnson in January. “That said, I’d personally like to see the page— like many other outlets in the city — become a little edgier and more diverse by focusing on people from all walks of life and in neighborhoods that don’t get a lot of positive attention.”
Eric Shanteau said he met Johnson after learning she was the artist behind a local art installation he had admired called “Before I Die,” a temporary chalkboard wall that prompted passersby to write down what they hoped to do before they died.
“Joni’s compassion and sense of intrigue for strangers in our community eventually led way toward meeting her and becoming friends,” Shanteau said. “She asked me if I wanted to be part of her newest project Humans of Toledo.”
Although he wasn’t familiar with the concept, Shanteau said the idea immediately spoke to him as an avid Instagrammer.
“Having a passion for photography myself, I understand originality and the urge to spark new interest in an art that has been around for what seems like forever,” he said.
Photographing people is especially meaningful, Shanteau said.
“You can take photos of anything inanimate around the world — panoramic views of cities and their skylines, even the Seven Wonders of the World — and it’s all incredible, all miraculous, and yet most of us won’t take a second glance at them in a photo because we are overloaded with their images in our mind,” he said.
“However, people are unique, and when you lend a story to their photo, it’s more or less a one-of-a-kind moment. It allows for us, as fans of Humans of Toledo, to spend a moment with individuals we may never meet in our lifetime, even though we may pass them along our own city streets. We are all Humans of Toledo, living our lives and understanding that a photo of another could quite possibly help narrow the gap from different to similar, with the drive Joni has to introduce us to one another.
“What she is truly reintroducing us to is the ability to communicate to anyone around us,” Shanteau added. “Perhaps to not pass judgment and understand that we all have hardships and joys as humans in Toledo. We are all one in this place we call home.”
Johnson said it’s been humbling for her to see the support people give each other on the page and to hear their stories. While she hopes others are getting something from it, the project is also very personal for her.
“I have constant struggles, big and small, but the key that I’m learning, with time, is that it’s important to never stop believing in yourself. I think this page allows for that opportunity,” she said. “It’s a moment of self-reflection and having meaningful connections with people in the community. The more I step outside of my spinning thoughts and give my time to others, the better I feel.”
To view the photos, visit www.facebook.com/HumansofToledo or www.humansoftoledo.wordpress.com.
Tags: Bowling Green State University, Brandon Stanton, Green State University, Humans of New York, Humans of Toledo, Joni Johnson, JUPMODE, local t-shirt company, photography project, The Arts Commission