“At the beginning I used to look for different faces and styles, but after a while I noticed that even the most boring looking people can have amazing stories to tell”
Hungarian born Peter Varga is the man behind the inspirational ‘Humans of Dublin’ Facebook page. Through street portraits and short interviews he provides us with a daily glimpse into the lives of strangers on the streets of Dublin. Yet the stories on the Humans of Dublin page are no ordinary tales. Varga has a knack of coaxing incredible stories from ordinary folk and the results are inspiring and touching pieces that stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.
The ever modest Varga says “People think that I must have a special technique and brilliant questions to get people to open up so quickly but it’s actually much more about your energy, being naturally curious and creating a friendly conversation”. But with over 120,000 followers and a new book just published, his extraordinary talents are finally getting some recognition. We caught up with him to find out how the project started, how he overcame his initial fears about approaching strangers on the street and how one of his interviews saved a man’s life.
Originally from Budapest, Peter came to Dublin in 2007, planning to get a summer job and stay for three months. Nine years later and he’s still here. He says “I fell in love with the city”. He started working as a barista but felt that he needed something to get passionate about, so he signed up for a photography course. Before he knew it, the idea for the Humans of Dublin project had been hatched:
“I started playing around with my camera before the course started, in the café where I was working we had a customer who was a press photographer and every time he was in he used to give me advice and would set small projects that challenged my creativity and perspective. Without realizing it, he became my mentor and about that same time my girlfriend (now fiancée) introduced me to the Humans of NY page, and we talked of how great would be to have a Dublin version of it”.
Varga wanted to create something inspiring, with real-life stories from everyday people you see on the streets, but usually you are too busy to notice. He started the project in 2014 and admits that at the start it was hard to approach strangers. “After each interview my confidence grew and now is second nature”.
How do you decide who to approach and who to talk to?
At the beginning I used to look for different faces and styles, but after a while I noticed that even the most boring looking people can have amazing stories to tell, so now I’m mostly looking for people standing or walking alone. I do try to have a diversity of different ages and gender, but I normally don’t have to pay too much attention to it, because Dublin has such a big mix of people. The most important thing is to approach people with positive energy, and to make eye contact. At the beginning I don’t say that I’m going to ask questions. I just say that I’m working on a photography project and I have to collect portraits of random people on the streets. After taking some photos, I show them, and that’s when I start chatting. I tell them that I have to add a few sentences for each portrait and would they mind if I ask one or two questions? I always try to focus on the natural, interactive conversation rather than just asking questions.
What have you learned from doing ‘Humans of Dublin’?
I think Ireland is really struggling with loneliness and depression, mainly amongst elderly people and the homeless. People are losing the basic human connections, I can see each day, working on Humans of Dublin, that it only takes a few questions and a sincere curiosity to gather great life stories. People just need to be listened to. I would love if the page could demonstrate that everyone has a great story to tell. Just sitting next to you there is always someone with an amazing story to share, you just need a bit of curiosity and time to listen. I meet elderly people every day with incredible knowledge and I have learned more from them than any book.
Do you think the experience of doing Humans of Dublin has changed you as a person?
Definitely, yes, unfortunately I wasn’t able to meet my grandparents (both of them died before I was born), but having the experience of talking to so many elderly people on the streets and receiving daily life lessons that you definitely can’t find in books or even in college, have changed the way I prioritise what is important in my life.
What has been the most liked & shared story on the Humans of Dublin page?
Jamie Harrington’s story got 52K likes and reached 2,6M people.
“I was just on my way to the American sweet shop to buy some Gatorade, when I saw this guy in his 30s sitting on the ledge of the bridge. I just thought, “wow…” I stopped and asked him if he was okay, but I knew from the look in his eyes he wasn’t, and he didn’t say anything either, but I saw tears coming from his eyes. I pleaded with him for a while to come down and sit on the steps, and eventually he did. We sat on the sidewalk on the south side of the Liffey and talked for about 45 minutes, about what was happening to him, why was he feeling that way… I couldn’t leave him there alone, but I had to go, so I was going to ring an ambulance. I told him they could help him feel better. But he was like “please, please don’t call them, I’m fine, I just want to walk around for a while, I’m gonna be okay!” I told him to please let me ring an ambulance, that I wouldn’t sleep knowing he was just walking around alone. So I rang it, and he was taken to St. James Hospital. I got his number so I would know what was going on with him for a good while… And about three months ago, he texted me that his wife is pregnant, they’re having a boy, and they’re naming him after me. Can you believe that? They’re going to name their child after me… He said in that moment that I approached him, he was just about to jump, and those few words saved his life. That they’re still ringing in his head every day. “Are you okay?” I can’t really understand how these few words could save his life, but he told me, “Imagine if nobody ever asked you those words…” “
What has been your favourite story?
That is a very hard question to answer, each story I post in the page is much more than just a picture and 300 words. These are people that I spent time with, getting to know them, and sometimes with hard stories to share. The story of Niamh O’Donoghue is one that really stuck with me. Her positive attitude towards life even after all the struggles she faced, was incredibly inspiring for me.
She said: “I do get a bit angry when I see girls complaining about body image. It hurts a lot. I battled demons with my body for years, and we have been through so much… I just had to learn how to love it. I accept it and give it the love it needs. When it tells me it needs a break, I give it a break. You know, the world is too superficial… Of course aesthetics is important and it makes you feel great, but it is not the be all and end all. We don’t need to strive for this unrealistic perfection. We’re not all supposed to have double Ds and a 26-inch waist… The most important thing is to accept and respect your body. Take long walks, eat healthily and exercise. These things should make you feel beautiful and happy.”
Niamh was diagnosed with scoliosis, which is a rare musculoskeletal disorder, when she was 13. As she said, she believes she was given a cross to carry for somebody else. Probably because she is so strong, they gave her another cross to carry, when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer a few months ago. Cancer definitely picked the wrong person to mess with!
The culmination of Varga’s efforts is now available in a book, simply titled “Humans of Dublin”, it’s a compilation of Varga’s most inspiring & touching stories, it’s available now to buy from Easons.