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.”

Noleen, Ōtāhuhu

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:


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