Prague photo journalist creates gallery of life stories

17-05-2016

This years’ Magnesia Litera Award for best blog went to Humans of Prague, a website featuring street portraits and interviews collected in the streets of the Czech capital. Established three years ago by Tomáš Princ, the blog has to this day featured over one thousand portraits and has attracted over 88,000 Facebook followers.

Tomáš Princ, photo: Martina PavlouškováTomáš Princ, photo: Martina Pavloušková When I met with Tomáš Princ to talk about Humans of Prague, I first asked him about his initial inspiration to launch the blog.

“There were several sources of inspiration. When I studied at the school of journalism, there was Jan Špáta, a Czech documentary filmmaker, and already in the 1960s, he travelled through the cities of Czechoslovakia, approaching people and asking them what was their biggest wish. So this was definitely one inspiration.

“Also, when I studied visual anthropology, I was really interested in the research trying to capture how people themselves are seeing the world around them and how they think about it. And when I did my bachelor thesis I went to a Roma settlement in Slovakia and I gave away single use camera to the local kids, because I was really interested in the idea of how someone else sees the world.

“Later I encountered the photography projects connected with storytelling on the Internet. One of them was called One in 80 Million and it was done by New York Times. And then I saw the Humans of New York blog, so in the end I took the format of Humans of New York, because it was the simplest: just a picture with an excerpt of the conversation. So this is how I started.”

“I am really interested in the idea of how someone else sees the world.”

How do you actually approach the people in the streets?

“Well I go to them and ask them if I can take a picture and they often refuse, so sometimes it takes hours before I find someone who agrees. And then I speak with them. Sometimes I talk to people who are on their way to school or work or they are going shopping, so they have only have a couple of minutes for the talking and sometimes they are sitting on a bench in the park and we spend hours talking. So it really depends.”

And what proportion of people rejects you right away?

“I would say maybe half of them, sometimes more. When it is sunny and the weather is nice, they don’t refuse me so much. But on a crowded street in winter or when it is raining, there are more refusals.”

And do you ask everybody the same question or do the questions differ according to who you speak to?

“I have several questions that proved to be useful, but I usually ask only one of them, for example: what have you been thinking about lately? And people usually start talking about what is one their mind. I always try to hear something that I haven’t heard from the hundreds of people before.”

To what extent are the pictures stylised?

“I work as a freelance photographer, so when I do portray photography, I stylize people more. So in this project I try to capture the way people position themselves and the gestures they make. Sometimes I put them in the shadow, when the light outside it too bright, but other than that, I try to make it as natural as possible.”

Where do you take the pictures? Do you have any favourite spots on the city?

“There are certain routes that proved to be good. Some of them are here in Vinohrady, as well as in the districts of Letná, Karlín and Dejvice. Sometimes I go to the more touristy parts of Prague but in the summer months I usually go around parks where people are more relaxed and have more time to talk.”

How many pictures have you published to this day?

“Last week there was a thousandth picture published so currently it is a little over one thousand.”

Do you still remember the first person you portrayed?

“It was not the first I published but it was the first person I approached, and I published it later. It was a man standing on a railway bridge at Výtoň and he was staring down on the river. I asked him? What are you thinking about? And he answered: I am thinking about what I will do tomorrow.”

“Sometimes there are stories that resonate more with me than others, but I do it for the variety.”

What is your favourite story so far?

“I don’t have one single favourite story. The experiences of the people, the subjects they talk about, are always different and this kind of variety is what I am most interested in. Sometimes there are stories that resonate more with me than others, but I do it for the variety.”

But still is there any particular story that you find more powerful?

“As I said, there are stories that resonate more than others. So from recent times, there was a story of young man who was abused by his father since young age and he describes how it affected him and how it affects him still. So this encounter was really strong for me.”

And what pictures are the most popular ones on Facebook?

“I noticed that among the most popular tend to be pictures and stories of older women, and sometimes men, pictures of “active seniors” who talk about how they run or walk.”

You have recently been awarded with Magnesia Litera Award. How important is this award for you?

Photo: Tomáš PrincPhoto: Tomáš Princ “Well I was quite surprised, because it is a literary award for the blog and I consider myself primarily a photographer. So I was really glad. And since I am trying to make the blog into a book and there was a financial reward tied to the prize, I have a better chance to carry out the project.”

Do you want to continue with the project in the future?

“Sure. Sometimes during winter, when it is freezing, it is quite frustrating to go into streets, and people are refusing me a lot, but when I see the results it still makes sense to me to continue.”

17-05-2016