Aliff Azhar is currently a full-time student. He is also the human behind Humans of Penang (HOP). A local spin-off from the globally-renowned Humans of New York, Aliff started the project with just a camera, a Facebook profile, and a sense of curiosity. Now, he has a crew behind him with a common goal – to keep the project alive.
“It began with just me maintaining it alone, an arduous task definitely. But more and more people showed interest to form a crew, and with continuous support, we were driven to build the page,” said Aliff.
Initially, Aliff posted images on his personal profile. Later on, he created HOP on Facebook and it soon became a team effort of seven people, consisting of Abdul Kader, Jason Chow, Rosli, Soon Fook, Aster Grace, Melissa You, and Aliff himself.
“My close friend Kader joined in to help. Most of us don’t know each other, but we all had the same interest, to keep the page alive,” said Aliff. The team always spend time and schedule to meet up with each other through WhatsApp.”
HOP is a photography project that documents people on the streets of Penang, and sometimes even from other places across the globe. The project, despite being focused on Penang, actually started off from his experience of studying abroad in Dublin, Ireland, where he met a Pakistani man named Ali, and heard his inspiring story.
“Ali was working at a grocery store near my house in Dublin. I found out about his struggles in immigrating to Europe to find a better life. He could not afford tertiary studies and started off in Dublin with only 200 euros. Today, he owns a grocery store and finally has a chance on education,” Aliff told Vulcan Post.
Ali’s success story sparked the idea of creating HOP and Aliff developed a passion to commit to the project.
“HOP is a page for people to read, smile and be inspired by these amazing stories,” said Aliff. “I wanted to play a role in changing Malaysian social media which is constantly filled with negativity and complaint, with HOP as a platform to spread positivity among Malaysians by sharing stories that transcend our religious and cultural differences.”
With the invention of social networking apps, more and more people prefer using the less sociable way to meet new people because these apps do not require socializing. However, Aliff and his team members are quite optimistic when they were asked about approaching strangers.
“Malaysians love talking! The process of breaking the ice and making them trust you is just what you have to do.”
Before taking a photo of the people they interview, the team will begin by having a casual conversation with them.
“Start with a positive question like their happy moments, then gains their trust by being a good listener, from there, your question bank expands and you could ask on their personal struggles or problems,” said Aliff. However, the team admits that they have been rejected before, and have been accused of being scammers before they even start to explain their intentions. “It can feel demotivating to get rejected by people but not approaching a person would be more regretful than getting rejected,” emphasized by Aliff.
We have asked Aliff to choose his three favourite photographs and stories, and this is what he shared with us.
“I’ve been selling ice cream here in Botanical Gardens from the day I fell in love, to the day I became a mother, till this moment right now.”
“Who’s that person in the portrait?”
“That is my beloved husband. He died two years ago, but I still keep this portrait here to honour him. I loved him so much and still remember the days when we ran this small business together. We were a happy family, and with three children, who all loved him because he was an admirable father to them. As a husband, he was such a gentleman. He would never scold the kids, and he would always say “Yes” to me even if I’m wrong. I could never find a man more polite and more courteous than him.”
“What was the happiest moment of your life?”
“When my parents brought me out for a birthday celebration dinner. It was the first time in my life they did that.”
“How old were you?”
“I was 19. Well, my parents and I weren’t that close throughout my childhood. But as I grew older, I slowly mended my relationship with them. and when they finally brought me out for dinner that night, I was so happy. We ate at Domino’s. Sounds like a simple place, but to me, and to them, it already meant so much more than just a dinner at Domino’s.”
“My family left me a long time ago, this is my home now. These benches right in front of Kapitan Keling Mosque. I sit down, look at people, and when they give me money, it is a huge blessing. They give me small packets of rice, it feels like a whole meal. But at the end of the day, I really need someone to talk to. Come find me right here, at these benches in front of the mosque. I’ll be here most of the time. Come and listen to me.”
Despite being a full-time student in Dublin, he still actively looks for people to interview, while the rest of the team are in Penang approaching people on the streets and gathering amazing stories. Aliff has a big dream – he wants to show readers a side of humanity in another part of the world – despite being on the other side of the world, he realises that stories from Penang and stories in Europe are quite similar.
Humans of Penang are actively looking for photographers and stories from people. To contact them you can reach them at their Facebook page.