HUMANS OF SOUTH AUCKLAND
Balancing the mainstream media’s recurrent reports of violence, poverty, and crime, Humans of South Auckland was developed in 2014 to celebrate the community’s abundant stories of love, hope, and pride. Since then, the project has evolved into something that reflects the unique composition of the streets to which it is dedicated
A person’s relationship with the place they come from is inevitably complex. When you love the community you come from but only ever see it represented in negative stereotyping by outsiders and the media, that relationship can become one of fierce, defensive pride. The need to celebrate the diverse, overlooked truths and to kick back against the unfair caricatures becomes something of a duty. At least, that’s clearly how the devoted storytellers behind Humans of South Auckland feel.
Initially set up in the mould of Brandon Stanton’s hugely popular street photoblog, Humans of New York, the project was born of a desire to redress the stigmatized reputation of Auckland’s informally defined southern suburbs. Founded by Jasmine Jenke, and run by a team of volunteers, the online Humans of South Auckland project was developed as a balance to the mainstream media’s recurrent reports of violence, poverty, and crime; instead, it celebrates the community’s abundant stories of love, hope, and pride.
Since the beginning in 2014, the project has evolved into something that reflects the unique composition of the streets to which it is dedicated. Maree Steunebrink, a volunteer almost since day one, explains how she and Jasmine slowly honed the project’s focus over time. “In the beginning, there was a real mix of approaching people on the street, getting nominations, some scenic stuff, some fashion — Jaz had a lot of ideas [that] she wanted to incorporate. That quickly developed into, ‘Actually, we’re going to save the space on our page for storytelling’.”
Each week, the project features stories of everyday people from the region who are simply living life well and making their community a better place for it. Their stories are accompanied by a simple, earnest, environmental portrait to further help locals connect with each other. The unadorned, accessible format has attracted almost 30,000 followers to the Facebook-based project. A little over a year ago, the responsibility for shepherding that sizable flock was handed to Maree.
Already the scribe behind the online stories, Maree is now also shooting portraits, alongside volunteer photographers Alex Carter and Monique Lee. The process begins with a subject being nominated, through word of mouth or an online message, and one of the volunteers scheduling a time and place to meet up and hear their story. That usually takes about an hour.
“I’ve found rapport is built super quick, and part of that is personality; the volunteers are really good with people. Secondly, we are there because we
are really proud of our community and so are [the interviewees],” says Maree. “So, straightaway, you’ve got this amazing common ground.”
As a result of the work, Maree has had the opportunity to hear — and become part of — some truly amazing stories from the neighbourhood. She’s heard from a lawyer who gave up the gig to take up occupation on land stolen from her ancestors; a Muslim Māori woman who has faced down intersecting prejudices to create a unique social service for the survivors of domestic violence; a young man who walked away from an academic scholarship to pursue a love of dance; and infertile foster parents who miraculously managed to have their own child and still continued to foster kids.
Maree says that they aren’t looking for superstars or over-achievers, just the regular people next door who are “doing life good”, and willing to share what makes them tick.
“A lot of people will talk about their role, their job, but that’s not necessarily what makes a good story; it can be quite dry. What we are looking for is the human,” she explains. “You might have been nominated because you’re an amazing youth worker; cool, that’s fine, but I wanna know who you are.”
Maree explains that, once the subjects are comfortable communicating, getting an authentic image is usually not too difficult. Being in front of the lens can be unnerving, but once someone has related an emotional experience, or recalled a memory of real pride, it shows through their entire body — it’s just a matter of being ready with the Canon 5D Mark III and 50mm portrait lens when the moment comes.
“It really helps that we meet with people in their own chosen space,” she elaborates. “I met a guy the other day — he plays basketball, so I met him outside on the court because that is where he is most comfortable. He was not comfortable being interviewed at all, but he was at home on the court with a ball in hand.”
“As a proud Māori woman from Ngāti Porou, I find it ironic to be told to ‘Go home to your own country’.
People assume that, because I wear the hijab [head scarf] and am easily identifiable as a Muslim, New Zealand is not my home. I grew up on the East Coast, where I experienced violence and abuse. This
led to me feeling the need to escape, which I did by getting married in my teens and embracing Islam. “When my marriage broke down years later, I struggled to find services that understood who I was as a Muslim woman. Following my own experience, I co-founded the Fatimah Foundation, to support women like me. Life has educated me through my early trials and sad experiences. Although it wasn’t an academic education, these experiences have brought me to where I am today. I am less judgmental and more empathetic because of them. When I work with our women, I understand them, because I have had a little bit of all of their experiences.”
The team has clearly struck a chord with its simple and heartfelt approach, appealing to the public’s enduring curiosity about their neighbours, as well as the desire to feel pride in their home. Amazingly, this magnanimous spirit has transferred into the usually troll-ridden online realm; in more than three years of running the popular Facebook page, Maree has only had to delete three comments — and apparently even they “weren’t that bad”.
Now, the project is looking to move that success into the physical world, taking the stories beyond social media to appear in this year’s Auckland Arts Festival at the Fresh Gallery in the South Auckland suburb of O¯ tara. It’s not the first time the project has emerged from the internet: in 2016, a beautiful Humans of South Auckland book was published; for a time, a series of Humans of South Auckland stories was run in the Manukau Courier; and the organization exhibited in central Auckland’s Silo Park late last year. But the Fresh Gallery show will be the first time the project has found space on the walls of a gallery on home turf. “We want the community to really engage with it, rather than everyone having to be quiet and walk around in silence,” Maree says. “We want it to be really accessible.”
Ultimately, Maree wants the exhibition to serve the same purpose as its online counterpart: to show viewers the positive side of the community, which you never see in the news. “I want the community to be proud of being part of South Auckland,” she asserts. “I want them to know they are more than the stereotypes that exist, and that everyone has a story worth telling.”
To view more stories of Humans of South Auckland, visit:
SALA, O¯ TARA, CANON EOS 5D MARK III, CANON EF 50MM F/1.2L USM LENS, 50MMM, 1A/1R2E5ES,SFT/2E.U8N, IESBOR1IN00K