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The human behind Humans of Minneapolis

Stephanie Glaros’ street portraiture and interviews are collected in a new book

Somehow, Stephanie Glaros became known for talking to strangers. This is surprising, especially to her.

When the photographer began posting her street portraiture online in 2010, the idea of having a conversation with one of her photo subjects was “absolutely frightening,” Glaros said. But the book she released in November — collecting photos and interviews from her popular Tumblr page, Humans of Minneapolis — demonstrates just how skilled Glaros has become at connecting with the people she encounters, so that they feel comfortable divulging the most intimate of details: battles with addiction, cancer diagnoses, parents who walked out and never came back.

Many facets of the human experience shine in Glaros’ interviews. A beaming high school graduate tells Glaros how he persevered to earn his diploma, even as he shuttled between foster homes. A Kenyan immigrant tells her about his job at Target’s corporate headquarters, proud and amazed that a kid who grew up in a village without water or electricity is employed at a Fortune 500 company.

“By the time I get to the point where I take their picture, we already feel like we know each other,” she said. “… Sometimes they’re telling me things that they’ve never told anybody before. Sometime they’re telling me things that they’ve never thought about before.”

"I’m from Malaysia. My parents are really strict. I moved here for school, but then I stayed. I could have gone crazy over here because my parents couldn’t see me. I could’ve gotten pregnant. Did drugs. Robbed a bank. And nobody would know." Photo by Stephanie Glaros
“I’m from Malaysia. My parents are really strict. I moved here for school, but then I stayed. I could have gone crazy over here because my parents couldn’t see me. I could’ve gotten pregnant. Did drugs. Robbed a bank. And nobody would know.” Photo by Stephanie Glaros

Glaros is an instructor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College where she returned to school to study graphic design after earning an undergraduate degree in women’s studies from the University of Minnesota–Duluth. She also teaches photography and social media classes and leads workshops that center on empathy. She previously spent a decade as art director of the Utne Reader — basically the magazine’s one-woman art department.

Glaros said photography has been her primary creative outlet since childhood.

“I grew up with a father who was a serious hobbyist, so we actually had a darkroom in our house,” she said. “I grew up watching my dad develop and print his own black-and-white 35mm film.”

Sometime around the fifth grade, Glaros got a compact 110 camera, her first, and began shooting photos.

“In high school, I learned how to develop and print my own black-and-white film and just absolutely loved it,” she said. “And my whole school career, photography was the only thing that really captured my interest.”

Glaros said she didn’t share her photos, and she wasn’t known as a photographer outside of her family. But she kept shooting, and by the mid-2000s her main subject was “abstract urban stuff,” as she described it — pictures of architecture, urban detritus and random messages scrawled on the cityscape.

“I was more reflecting back the things I saw in my environment, but not so much the people,” she said.

That changed after she began attending a local photo salon hosted by Wing Young Huie in 2008. Huie, an award-winning photographer who has made the diverse residents of the Twin Cities his subjects in documentary projects that explored Lake Street, University Avenue and St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, encouraged Glaros to spend more time interacting with the people around her.

“When I brought my very first pictures I took of people on the street to his salon, he very gently kind of nudged me in that direction,” Glaros said. “He was like, ‘Yeah, you should keep doing this.’

“In part, I was trying to impress him, really.”

In 2010, Glaros started a new series of street portraits on her Tumblr page. She called it Minneapolis Strangers, and most of her photo subjects were people she encountered on the walk between her home in the Warehouse District and the offices of the Utne Reader on Hennepin & 12th.

“The reason I started approaching people and asking to take their picture is that I was running into the same people every day, but we weren’t interacting,” she said. “… Day after day, I would see the same people and just became uncomfortable with that and decided I was going to use my camera to break through that social barrier.”

"If you judge other people, you lose by not knowing what they’re really about." Photo by Stephanie Glaros
“If you judge other people, you lose by not knowing what they’re really about.” Photo by Stephanie Glaros

Around the same time, New York City photographer Brandon Stanton launched his photo blog Humans of New York, and within months his combination of street portraiture and interviews became a social media sensation. Other “Humans of” pages began popping up all over the Internet, each documenting the people of a different city.

“I said to myself, somebody is going to do Humans of Minneapolis. Why not me?” Glaros recalled.

It wasn’t long before Minneapolis Strangers morphed into Humans of Minneapolis. Her photos and interviews also appeared regularly in the Southwest Journal’s City Voices column.

“I was getting so much out of it,” she said. “It was satisfying something both creatively but also just as a person. Making these connections was almost addicting to me, and talking to strangers was my thing.”

Glaros’ empathy is the common theme that runs through all the photos. You see it in the open, unguarded expressions of her subjects — an emotional connection between photographer and subject made visible.

Glaros spent most of 2016 assembling the book, and she said the process uncovered themes in her work: mental health, identity, her passion for social justice. While Humans of New York tends to focus on what makes each individual unique, Glaros said she’s more interested in the things we all share in common.

“Photography is a mirror,” she said. “You’re not just seeing the person; you’re seeing me reflected in the person.”

“Humans of Minneapolis” is available for purchase at stephanieglaros.com. The book is also stocked at Mill City Museum and Hennepin History Museum.

To see more photos from Humans of Minneapolis, go to humansofminneapolis.tumblr.com.

"My kids are grown, so I’m learning how to take care of me." Photo by Stephanie Glaros
“My kids are grown, so I’m learning how to take care of me.” Photo by Stephanie Glaros