It’s ingrained in our heads as kids: don’t talk to strangers. But one organization in St. Louis believes talking to strangers is the most powerful way to unify our city.
With more than 300,000 people, St. Louis is a melting pot of various cultures, ethnicities, talents and socioeconomic backgrounds. There’s no limit to what we can learn from someone we wouldn’t ordinarily meet. However, the hustle and bustle of work, family and social life can make it difficult to cross those proverbial tracks. That’s why Humans of St. Louis started a project to tell the story of St. Louis in a way that’s never been done before.
Humans of St. Louis, a nonprofit photojournalism initiative, uses personal stories to inspire connectivity and evoke compassion. For five years, HOSTL’s photojournalists have documented joy, pain, hope and heartbreak through images and language of everyday St. Louisans. Today, 2,187 interviews and 36,000 minutes of storytelling later, that project has been elevated to a new level.
Thanks to 445 backers that pledged nearly $35,000, HOSTL is closer to funding the first print run of Humans of St. Louis, a curated hardcover book of 250 first-person portraits and stories about St. Louisans.
But why publish a book when you have 95,000 fans on Facebook and 20,000 followers on Instagram?
HOSTL has a dominant online presence. In fact, it’s the second-most popular “Humans of” account, trailing only the original Humans of New York. However, the fleeting nature of social media often means these touching stories can get lost amidst the clutter when they deserve to be remembered forever. The organization decided a book was much more fitting.
“There’s something special about telling these stories outside the realm of social media with a tangible, physical book,” says HOSTL co-founder Caroline Fish. “It’s an experience as much as it is a story.”
HOSTL had opportunities to publish the book quickly and cheaply out of the state or overseas, but it was decided that the entire self-publishing process would stay local. From the stories to the team of creatives, from the printer to the distributor, the book is crafted by those who call Missouri home.
“This book has always been a project for St. Louis, so we wanted to keep project in St. Louis,” says Fish.
If you ask Humans of St. Louis what the most powerful driver of change is, it’s our ability to listen. Stories, particularly visual stories, can bridge the empathy gap that can seem impossible to cross at times. Ironically, though, “change” usually isn’t the intention of those whose stories HOSTL tells.
“Not everyone recognizes the power of their own stories,” says Fish. “But it’s an amazing feeling to tell someone that they reached 30,000 people and may have changed somebody’s life.”
Perhaps there’s something we can all learn from the power of storytelling, whether we’re trying to foster change in our household, in our city, or in our world.
“Getting people to care means you have to get the heart of the human experience, and I think that’s exactly what we’ve accomplished.”
For a preview of the book’s format, here are a couple mock-ups: