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Shitij Nigam, The Human Behind Humans of Singapore, On His HoS Journey

If there’s a Facebook page that captures what it means to be quintessentially Singaporean, Humans of Singapore is probably it. Two years ago, New Delhi-born Shitij Nigam drew inspiration from Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York (HONY) — a blog capturing the stories of New Yorkers with over 12 million followers — to create our very own Singaporean spinoff.

Ever since then, Shitij has been trawling the streets of Singapore, armed with only a camera and a wide smile. Local and expat, young and old, his Humans of Singapore project seeks to document the portraits of all those who call this little red dot home. In the process, he illuminates — just for a moment — the lives of the silent and unknown people we brush past on the street, creating, in his own way, a Singapore without strangers.

The Man Behind The Lens

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From the cheerful way he responds to my questions, it’s apparent that Shitij has an infectiously vibrant spirit. The Singapore Management University graduate describes himself as “24 years old turning 25 this year, with occasional outbursts of childishness”, and it’s perhaps no surprise that his Humans of Singapore project began in a similarly light-hearted way.

“It actually started off as a joke — I’d recently bought my first camera, and a friend and I were browsing through Humans of New York, when she jokingly suggested — “Why don’t you start Humans of Singapore”.

So I did.”

The HoS Journey

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Image Credit: Humans of Singapore cover photo, A Good Citizen

It’s difficult for most of us to picture starting up a conversation with a total stranger, much less a meaningful one. Yet reading the stories on Humans of Singapore, the first thing that strikes you is how intensely personal they are. Sure, there’re a lot of quirky moments, but many have also shared their deepest struggles, regrets and fears on a page with more than 67,000 followers. How does Shitij move past the initial awkwardness and convince Singaporeans to delve into their private experiences? The secret, it seems, is to smile.

“Starting off with a big smile is kinda important, alongside a fairly confident body language. Once I initiate the conversation with them, I usually ask first if I can take a picture of them, explaining that it’s for a photography project. If they agree, then I typically ask them to stand somewhere specific, and snap a shot.

Most of the time, people are interested in checking their pictures out — so I show it to them, and I ask if they have 5 minutes to have a quick chat so that I can explain the project to then. They usually do, which is when I give them a rundown of any question which I might be thinking of at the time.”

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Singaporeans are a notoriously reticent bunch — or so we think. But you might be surprised, Shitij says, that while he’s met with plenty of rejections these two years, we Singaporeans are overall “quite open to having their picture taken, and having a conversation with complete strangers.”

Asked to pick one recent story that moved him on Humans of Singapore, Shitij’s choice is this:

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Image Credit: Homans of Singapore Facebook page
Image Credit: Homans of Singapore Facebook page

His reason? “It wasn’t taken by me, for a change, which made a big difference because it was as unexpected for me as it was for the audience.” I guess when you’re always the one behind the camera, it’s refreshing to see from the other end of things for once.

Social Media And Beyond

The success of the Humans of Singapore project definitely isn’t unique. We’re beginning to see an increase in the number of communities that aim to celebrate local culture, such as Facebook page Hosaybo, who’ve garnered more than 10,000 likes since they started last year.

All around the world, from Belgium to New Delhi, ‘Humans of _____’ spinoffs have been gaining huge followings since Brandon Stanton began HONY five years ago. (And let’s not even go into fantasy worlds — there’s a Humans of Westeros page for all you Game of Thrones fans.) Going by the sheer number of people who’re willing to give a friendly stranger a chance, it’s nice to think that our planet is fast becoming a more approachable place.

Image Credit: Humans of Singapore
Image Credit: Humans of Singapore

Asked about the impact of the ‘Humans of ______’ pages beyond social media, Shitij says that “Humans of New York is a great example — they raised 1.5 million dollars for a school — and that’s nothing short of incredible.” This was two months back, when HONY launched a campaign to raise funding for Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a middle school in crime-plagued Brownsville. The online campaign raised a whopping $100, 000 in less than an hour. Considering how easy it seems for people to be cruel online, there’s something truly remarkable about the way the ‘Humans of _____’ projects can remind us to show compassion for our fellow human beings.

So what’s next for Humans of Singapore? Will we be seeing a HOS book, following in the footsteps of HONY’s? For Shitij, it’s a matter of experimenting slowly with all the great ideas being thrown around. But that’s not his main concern at present. Right now, all he wants, he says, “is just to get good stories out there.”

 

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