‘Londoners are perhaps the best in the world at multi-cultural mixing and acceptance’: The Humans of Greater London story

In December 2013, inspired by the Facebook page Humans of New York, Cathy Teesdale began documenting the stories of Londoners and posting them on the Humans of Greater London (HoGL) Facebook page, accompanied by their portraits. Having snapped hundreds of photos, transcribed thousands of words and built a community of over 18,000 followers, HoGL is achieving its mission of celebrating the humanity, life and magic contained within the 33 boroughs of London.

We interviewed Cathy to learn more about HoGL’s origins, her ambitions for the project, and some of her most interesting subjects to date.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background, HoGL style?

“I’ve been a writer, photographer and editor for over 20 years, working in a variety of contexts and being something of a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. However, perhaps inspired by my portrait painter father, I’ve long known that people are my favourite photographic subject, and community and humanity my greatest concern.

“In 2000 I photographed 127 people, over 3 nights and 5 days, as part of a community project called ‘Brixton has Many Faces’ which was designed to counter the irresponsible sensationalism of a ‘Brixton is full of drug dealers getting away with murder’ Evening Standard piece. Between 2004 and 2006, I was also the Official Event Photographer for Southwark Council, covering a wonderfully diverse range of cultural-celebration festivals, workshops and parades.

“I’ve also often found myself looking at crowds and thinking ‘All these LIVES!’, and I really enjoy looking through, and sharing, windows into other people’s worlds. So, in the 22 months I’ve been working on HoGL, I’ve come to feel that I’ve finally found my mission and that all the threads of my diverse skills are now weaving together into a substantial cord. I’ve also found myself feeling a lot less depressed about the state of the world, knowing that I’m finally doing something concrete to help.”

What inspired you to start up a Greater London version of the Humans of New York project?

The initial inspiration was finding out about HONY (Humans of New York) in the autumn of 2013, ahead of the launch of Brandon Stanton’s first HONY book. I loved the idea and the format, did some online investigation, saw how many other Humans of… pages were starting up all over the world, and then found the excellent Portraits of America (initially Portraits of Boston) page too. (POB/POA seems to have started up independently of HONY, unless its creator Ivan is not giving credit where it’s due?)

When I discovered that I was a little late to the party and there were already 2 Humans of London, and 1 Humans of London City, pages — none of them great, I felt I had something significant to offer and, at the suggestion of a friend, chose the name ‘Humans of Greater London’. Luckily, the HoGL acronym is proving popular and I now feel like I’ve invented a word so I can use it in any configuration I like — I am a HoGL, I go HoGling, you’ve been HoGLed etc. It sounds like something out of Harry Potter or Tolkein, and has echoes of hug, cuddle and mug, which are all part of the process too!

I’m always dressed this way. People don’t realise how much wearing colours lightens things up! Also, basically, I’m an attention-seeker. I want people to feel able to approach me, to lose their inhibition and know that they’re likely to have a fun conversation, a communion, with me. And people do approach me, just like you did today, all the time. All ages, all genders. And they’ll often say ‘Oh, I feel so much better for having talked to you!’” Read more of Raga’s story, met in Borough.

How do you feel London compares to New York in terms of culture and diversity, and also the response to the stories?

I think New York and London are both very ethnically and culturally diverse, but that Londoners are perhaps the best in the world at multi-cultural mixing and acceptance — so many people I’ve HoGLed keep telling me so! Brandon chooses not to include any names, nationalities or locations, presenting his subjects in a kind of Everyman light, but I decided I would, both as a way of making HOGLs feel more real to viewers, and to actively challenge divisive and disrespectful preconceptions and prejudices too.

I would say that Americans are generally more sentimental and less subtle than the British, though of course HONY’s 15 million followers now come from all over the world, and I love seeing the multitude of deeply humane and caring comments which always spring up under HONY posts.

I did identify a danger quite early on though — that of feeding anyone’s appetite for ‘tragedy porn’ with out-of-context or oversimplified stories. So I’m always working hard both to do my subjects justice, and to select and share a wide, life-reflecting balance of light and dark, happy and sad, and everything in between.

Who are the most inspirational people who you’ve met during the project?

I’ve been doing HoGL for nearly 2 years now so there have been loads and that has been a huge privilege. But I can select just 3 for here.

Ruth Gilburt, a teacher, single mother and intelligent, committed and passionate humanitarian, who I met and HoGLed last year at an anti-ATOS demonstration with her daughter Ruby, and who has since become a dear friend.

Raga Woods, who I bumped into in the street in Borough and bought breakfast for (at her irresistible request!), and who has been the HoGL profile picture for many months now, both because she looks so wonderfully vivid and because clicking on it can lead people to her inspiring post.

Taurus (Taur) Pearson, who I met and HoGLed recently on Kensington Church Street thanks to him walking towards me with a beaming smile on his face, despite having just had a meeting about possibly failing Uni. His post seemed to resonate deeply with HoGL followers too, getting over 1,000 likes and some 100 comments. Like me, he’s a big believer in the power of connecting up the dots and he has promised to help me organise and promote the next HoGL Hub, where I help to connect Londoners offline.

I might be about to fail Uni, that’s the meeting I’ve just come from, but I recognise that life is so forgiving and full of opportunities, and that my mind doesn’t have to be trapped by my external reality. When you understand that, it makes you feel free. That’s why I’m still smiling.” Read more about Taurus, met on Kensington Church Street.

Having met hundreds of strangers over the course of the last two years, do you feel your attitude to people has changed since you started?

I think it has confirmed that my deep faith in humanity (born from doing a fair bit of solo travelling over the years), was entirely justified, and that the huge majority of people are, given the chance, perfectly decent, reasonable, non-violent, and willing-to-share-and-care human beings.

You’ve documented the stories of a number of people who are or have been homeless at some point — with homelessness up by 79% in London in the last 5 years, do you feel people sleeping rough have access to the support they need?

Having volunteered with soup kitchens and a number of Crisis at Christmases over the years, I understand that homelessness is a complicated issue, and know that there are many wonderful organisations and centres in London dedicated to helping people who’ve fallen through the safety net. Of course, there are some with deep psychological traumas and/or addictions who don’t necessarily want to be helped, and others who are all-too-keen and ready to get back on their feet but are failed by the system. However I do feel that it’s the inhumane policies of the current government, and the previous coalition, particularly the appalling DWP, which have directly caused this massive spike in homelessness over the past 5 years.

What lessons have you learnt about communicating a compelling story about an individual with only a photo and a few hundred words at your disposal?

I like to keep things real and photograph people pretty much as I find them, though the odd bit of distracting rubbish might get removed, and occasionally I’ll turn people towards a better, more flattering light.

I’m also always keen to do people justice — they’ve trusted me to show them to the world and I’m determined not to let them down. I find the best way to get a good, true portrait — one that communicates something of their essence — is to get your subject to relax fast by giving them confidence that they look just great as they are, and I’ve always been good at voicing complimentary thoughts too.

I almost always record people’s words (using an old phone) so that I have an accurate transcript of what they actually said to me. Then I’ll sculpt and hone those words into a pithy, Fb-sized piece. That, I have to say, is the hardest part for me as I’ll often find too much of what people say interesting. So the whittling can take me a lot of squinting and careful consideration. Yesterday I transcribed a recent half-hour, 2661-word update conversation I had with Naiomi (the young woman who was helped to find a home by a successful HoGL crowdfunder) and I spent a good hour and a half whittling it down to just 298 words!

Things I still struggle with myself (and I know other Ho creators do too) are:

  • If you’re feeling shy or self-conscious, you’re likely to make the human you’re approaching feel the same way, and they’re much more likely to turn you down.
  • Try to remember — ‘being nosey’ is fine when it’s a sign of genuine interest and respect.
  • Don’t get too bogged down in biographical details and always try to dig up something elementally human which many can relate to.

Brandon has got REALLY good at this over the 5 years he’s been doing HONY, hence his 15 million followers. He’s also become a very good portrait photographer and done some extremely powerful empathy-expanding work with the UN last year and, right now, with the UNHCR. So he’s still inspiring me and I’m quite sure, barring any deadly donkeys falling from the sky, we’ll get to meet and talk one day.

I think I probably came out the womb non-conformist, it’s in the blood — I’ve got a French Huguenot background. I just don’t like injustice so I’ll rail against it, or fight against it, and if it affects me personally, even more so, obviously. I’ve been on ESA — Employment Support Allowance — which is for people who have physical or mental issues and they just need a helping hand back to work. I was a teacher and I’m trying to get back into teaching, but my most recent assessment, by a really young physiotherapist, decided I was ineligible so, even though I might have won my appeal against that, like so many other unfairly assessed people, I’ve just walked away from it, I can’t deal with it any more, it’s just too stressful.” Read about Ruth and Ruby, after the ATOS protest in Triton Square, Euston.

Do you find HoGL appeals to a certain generation, or do you find people of all ages following and commenting on stories?

It seems to have a wide cross-generational appeal.

You have amassed an impressive community of tens of thousands of followers on Facebook — what tips can you give for growing a community of engaged people?

I actually feel HoGL has been handicapped by Facebook’s weird algorithms. If ‘Humans of Greater London’ routinely appeared when people were searching for a ‘Humans of London’ page there, it’s following could well now be 4 or 5 times as big. Sadly, it doesn’t — all because of the additional ‘Greater’! But I’m very proud of the page’s organic growth, and feel the best way to grow a community of engaged people is to be seriously committed and engaged yourself, and to satisfy the thirst for regular doses of positive inspiration too.

If you could effect one change in the world through HoGL, what would it be?

To help inspire so much more empathy, and faith in humanity, that people in their millions start believing a better world really is possible — if only they can take back their power from the corporations, governments and rulers, and join hands to demand that we all Stop The Madness please. After all, billions of individually-just-annoying water drops can, when joined together, an irresistible tsunami make!

What’s next for HoGL?

I’ve recently had an offer from a publisher to do the first HoGL book, which is very exciting, and HoGL has also recently been featured in the Guardian and Independent on Sunday, and on the BBC, so more and more people are finding it every day. I hope loads will like, follow and support the page and, if they’re London-based, come connect at a future HoGL Hub too!

Visit Humans of Greater London on Facebook.