Project takes form: Humans of SJU

Elena’s necklace is in the shape of a heart with a peace sign inside of it. She keenly watches everyone in the bustling D’Angelo Center Starbucks through her pink glasses, looking for interesting characters. “Everyone has their own story to tell,” she says softly.

Elena has a story too.

She is a freshman, she commutes from Rego Park and she goes to classes and is involved on campus like any other student. But unlike most students, she spends her free time at St. John’s snapping photographs and conducting interviews.

Elena, who prefers to use only her first name to preserve the integrity of the page, is the woman behind the curtain of Humans of St. John’s University, the Facebook page that has garnered hundreds of “likes” since its launch on Sept. 18.

The inspiration for the website was Humans of New York, Brandon Stanton’s “photographic census” of the diversity in New York City.  Elena credits Stanton on her Facebook page, but is taking her own spinoff in a different direction. Her page differs from the original in small but noticeable ways, such as: conversations rather than stand-alone quotes, compiling videos and posting inspirational quotes on Sundays.

“Everyone has their own beauty,” she explains. “Sometimes it takes just a few seconds to find it, to notice the beauty, the uniqueness.”

Part of her motivation in starting the page was to expand her social circle.  When she started at SJU, soft-spoken Elena “noticed that college is different. I started just talking to people. It’s a good way to meet people.”

“I like to ask ‘What’s your advice for the world?’” she says as she approaches one of the coffeehouse tables.  A girl in a blue dress with a studded collar is using the computer at the table, her head propped up on an arm full of bracelets.

“Hi!” Elena says to the girl. “Can I take your picture?”

Elena chooses her subjects deliberately. “I like to look for people who are really involved in what they’re doing,” she said. For the most part, the shots are not posed, although subjects do sign a release form giving her the right to use their image. After taking the photographs (two or three for each subject) she conducts a short interview, an attempt to get a poignant quote that will accompany the snapshot on her website.

Thus far, Elena has featured dozens of professors, priests and students who represent the diversity at St. John’s.

The girl at the table, Moira Shannon, is already a fan of Humans of St. John’s and willingly consents to be photographed.

“Can I take a picture of your bracelets?” Elena asks. She pulls her Canon Rebel out of her Aeropostale tote and focuses.

“They all have a story,” Shannon explains, describing what each one means to her. Later that day, Elena will upload her picture to Humans of St. John’s University, along with a photo of the bracelets and a link to Moira’s website.

In an effort to build on the momentum of Humans of St. John’s, Elena is attempting to begin a club—The Social Experiment—through the Power to Organize process at St. John’s next semester. Humans of St. John’s got so much attention that she thinks it should expand. For now, Humans of St. John’s will remain a solo project, although she does occasionally accept submissions.

What’s Elena’s advice for the world? “If you really love something, just do it, and notice the beauty in everything.”