CANDID Interview With Nick Cinea, Creator of Humans of Hartford
Aundrea Murray - Interviewer
Quenton Narcisse - Photography & Transciption
Chances are if you have an Instagram account, you're familiar with the Humans of New York page, which catalogues the city's everyday inhabitants and gives brief insight into their lives and daily struggles. Quiet as kept, Nick Cinea is attempting to do the same here in Hartford. We invited Cinea over to our Parkville loft to discuss how Humans of Hartford originated, how he effectively approaches strangers for photos and his future plans with the HoH project.
What is it about the locals that you find interesting? Because [what] I know about local news [is that] they teach a lot of tactical skills that kind of give you a good foundation for things.
I was a P.A. at NBC and that was my first job straight out of college. And I got that because I interned there in their creative services department, and I made sure that the production manager got to know me. So when the time came when the internship was over, I asked him if there were any jobs and he said, “well, there aren’t but we could create one.” It was awesome. So they created a P.A. job. I jumped into that and did that for four and a half years.
I remember him asking during the interview, 'Why here?', and I told him that I could really build a really good production base structure here. I feel like there’s a foundation to learn all these different skills. He liked that answer – he was like, “Yeah yeah, you’ll learn all that here” – and it’s true. As the P.A. there in local, you do everything. I started on the prompter, then I did graphics, I did master control, video editing, audio, etc. So, you wear many different hats in local.
When did you start thinking about Humans of Hartford, then? Was it while you were at NBC?
It was January of 2014, so last year. I discovered Humans of New York in the summer of 2013 and I was really inspired by it. I said to myself, ‘This is a great concept’. It’s the most basic idea that everyone has a story to tell, but we forget that because we’re busy trying to get from point A to point B that we forget some of the most simple things. So, it was a really cool concept, and I wanted to do something like it.
I was always interested in photography, but I was always afraid to jump into it and do it because you can set your camera to Auto, but what’s the point of learning photography if you’re going to do that? And I told myself, if I’m going to get an DSLR camera and try to be a good photographer, I’m going to make sure that I learn photography before I even really get the camera. So I was on YouTube for a month watching all these different tutorials – you know, ‘How to Set Your Camera when it’s in Manual’ and ‘Aperture Shutter Speed’ and what all those mean and how they work together. And then I got my camera, and I pretty much started photography and Humans of Hartford at the same time in March of 2014. So, a few months after thinking about initially doing it. But yes, I wanted to take that concept in Humans of New York and [the idea that] everyone has a story to tell and bring it to Hartford.
Why Hartford when you were thinking about Connecticut? Where are you from? East Hartford?
I’m originally from Bolton, but I live in East Hartford now and I’ve been there for two years. I was originally thinking ‘Humans of Connecticut’ but someone already took that. At the same time, I was also thinking that I don’t want to drive all over. I started thinking, ‘Okay, let’s just make it one city’ and focus on one’s city’s culture [and] people. And Hartford came to mind because it’s a capital city but it’s a strong line of diversity. And a lot of history, but there’s a culture to Hartford that a lot of people don’t realize. People really only see that negative stigma like, ‘Hartford’s a scary city. It’s just a place where people get shot and stabbed’. But there’s a whole other side of Hartford that people kind of need to open your eyes and see. Hopefully, we can do that through Humans of Hartford and show that there are real people living and breathing and everyone has a good day and everyone has a bad day, but you know, we’re all human. So I really try to show that through the page.
I know you mentioned in the previous article I read that you wanted to focus more on the art that’s in Hartford. What about the art lifestyle are you trying to show through Humans of Hartford?
In that prior interview, I remember saying that Hartford’s art culture is so spread out. I wish it was more centralized so that way more people could gravitate to it. What I really hoped I could do was raise awareness about it, and at the same time, find those artists in Hartford and also help them get discovered. As far as covering it goes, I guess I want to show that there is this art culture and it’s there and most people won’t see. Like, I didn’t know about Real Art Ways until three years ago.
How did you find out?
A really good friend of mine, she’s really into the arts and she’s been going there for years and she just happened to mention it. She said, ‘Hey, I know you’re a big movie buff and they have their animated live shorts going on a month from now. Do you want to go check it out at Real Art Ways?’, and I was like, ‘Where?’ [laughs]
If anything, that’s what gets people to look into things and get a familiarity with it. You find out where it is or with the Humans of Hartford, just going on the blog page and seeing people that I’ve either worked with or I’ve seen before automatically raises an interest in seeing or hearing their story.
But how do you craft how you approach people or talk to people? How are you getting strangers to talk to strangers because Hartford is still Hartford at the end of the day.
That’s always the challenge; getting a stranger to talk to you because their first notion when a stranger approaches them is going to be, ‘What is this person’s agenda?’. Nobody comes up to you and asks how you’re doing because how we’re conditioned in society is to just keep to ourselves. So, when approaching somebody, make sure you approach them from the front so they can see you and not from behind because you’re going to scare the heck out of them and your chances of them talking to you are limited to none [laughs]. So, I started off by making sure I’m in their line of vision, and I carefully approach them. I might even hunch over a little bit to not seem threatening.
And I kind of took this cue from Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York. I watched an interview on how he was approaching people so I kind of used his technique. Raise the pitch of your voice to seem less threatening, and just say, ‘Excuse me, could I get a photo of you for Humans of Hartford?’. Just genuinely kind like that, and usually people are willing to open up. Like I don’t say, ‘Hey, can I just get a photo of you?’ I make it seem very genuine. I am interested in you and want to get your photo. I want to get your story. It’s about seeming genuinely kind and not threatening.
If they say yes, I just explain, ‘I’m just going to get a photo for Humans of Hartford. My name is Nick. I take photos of people in Hartford and share their stories’. Once I get the photo, I’ll say, “Alright well, now I going to ask a number of questions to kind of get a sense of what you’re going through right now.’ And you always start with the broad stroke question. I’ll ask people if they could give a piece of advice, what would it be? Or my favorite question to start with is, ‘What’s your biggest struggle right now?’ And once they tell you, ask more specific questions that work their way backwards through the story to find out why they’re going through this struggle. Where did this struggle start and how have they been dealing with since then?
For example, I talked to a young boy in the West End yesterday and I asked him what his biggest struggle was. He started by saying, ‘Well, I don’t really have any struggles right now, but I made it through a phase in my life where I was really angry’. So, I said, ‘What made you angry?’ And then he talked about how his mother passed away ten years ago and he didn’t deal with that too well and he was getting in trouble in school. But he’s like, ‘I really progressed since then. I’m doing well in school [and] got good grades.’ So, you start with a broad stroke question and start asking specific questions to work your way backwards. That’s been my approach. You wouldn’t start out with, you know, ‘Are you angry right now?’
Has a story ever backfired on you? As you go deeper into specifics and it doesn’t go the way you intended?
Not that I recall right now. I don’t think so. I know there was a case where I asked a girl at this big event that was going on – it was like a working event – and I asked the girl for a photo for Humans of Hartford. And she was like, ‘Yeah, I’m sorry. I’m waiting for a friend to show up.’ I just said, ‘Okay well, good luck.’ And it came out the wrong way. I didn’t mean it like, “Okay, well good luck then’. I meant it like there’s this whole crowd, I hope she can get through the crowd [laughs]. She was like, ‘Excuse me?’ Then I apologized, like ‘I’m very sorry. That came out wrong.’ [laughs] But then it worked out in my favor because I explained what I do and she was like, ‘Oh, Humans of Hartford! Okay okay, I follow you! That’s awesome!’
How do you explain Humans of Hartford to people when they ask what it is?
If they’re not familiar with it? The most common question that I get is ‘So this is a magazine or a newspaper?’, and I say ‘No, it’s an online photo blog and storytelling blog’. I say it’s on Facebook and Instagram [and] HumansofHartford.com where it will have a picture and our conversation right under the photo, so you can have a photo to associate with the story and vice versa. And that’s pretty much it. It’s usually a yes or no, like, ‘Okay, I’ll do this for you’ or ‘No, I don’t want to be on the Internet’. It’s funny because some people are fine with being in a magazine or newspaper, but not with being on the Internet.
Cause they’re not sure what the intention of it is.
How many people it’s gonna reach, how many people are gonna see it, yeah.
There’s a Humans of Connecticut and Humans of UConn, so it’s expanding in Connecticut. People are getting a little bit more familiar. Where do you want Humans of Hartford to go as far as the audience it’s reaching?
Well, my first goal is to do Humans of Hartford full-time and be fully devoted to it and give it the energy it really needs to go where I want it to go. And where I want it to go is what Humans of New York is actually doing and delve deeper into the education system. Visit Hartford schools and visit all these different restaurants and cultural centers and even homeless shelters, [and] really get these solid, strong stories out there. Cause I feel like I just scratched the surface. Walking down the streets of Hartford and talking to people, I really want to focus on the heart of Hartford. It starts in the schools and maybe even talk to politicians and get their stories out there too and get all sides of the story basically.
Do you have a theme in mind?
Like, Hartford High. Maybe start there. Especially the teenage group in Hartford is interesting because they’re in that phase where they’re transitioning from being kids to adults. It’s really a time in your life where, I don’t know, I feel like you’re firing on all cylinders. The world is your oyster. I like to see their opinions, especially a lot of the youth in Hartford because they went through so much more than I went through when I was their age. A lot of youth in Hartford are not coming from these families living in suburbs with white picket fences. They’re coming from families where mom and dad are divorced or dad’s in jail [or] mom’s on drugs, and these are some real hardcore stories that can be pretty heart-wrenching that I really want to get out there and show people like, ‘Hey, Hartford does have it’. We have some really powerful stories to tell, so don’t just walk down the street and judge people on first glance. These are people who have been through a lot.
Is there any story or lesson that stood out from doing Humans of Hartford for a year now?
One thing that Hartford has is a lot of faith-based people. A lot of people are religious in Hartford. I don’t know, I guess I didn’t expect that going into it but there are a lot of people that say, ‘I believe in God and my strength comes from God.’ The other side of the coin, there is a huge number of heroin users in Hartford and people battling heroin abuse right now. But then there’s also a certain percentage of Hartford’s youth that are just very optimistic and very strong and they’ve been through a lot, but yet they’re very motivated to succeed.
A lot of them would say, ‘I’m going to buy my parents a house. I’m going to pursue this…’ like they already know what they want to pursue. I want to do this, this and this to be successful because the family I came from, my parents were struggling or they’re not as motivated. And it’s really cool to see – a lot of Hartford’s youth is very motivated and driven to succeed.
Are there plans for you to expand Humans of Hartford? I know Humans of New York has a book, but you have a Tumblr page yourself. Any plans for expanding?
I would love to make a book for Humans of Hartford but I’m not sure people would buy it.
"SO MANY PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY ON FACEBOOK EVERY DAY, ARE VERY NEGATIVE, YOU KNOW? ‘OH, CAR DIDN’T START’ OR ‘OH, I WAS AT THE GYM AND THIS HAPPENED’. BUT IF YOU CAN CREATE POSITIVE ENERGY FOR OTHER PEOPLE, IT CAN BECOME CONTAGIOUS BECAUSE SOMEONE CAN SEE THAT AND GO, ‘WOW, I AM HAVING A MISERABLE DAY BUT HE’S RIGHT. AT LEAST I AM LIVING AND BREATHING.’"
I’ve said this before, but New York is like the unofficial capital of the world sometimes because people come from all over to visit and experience the culture and enormous melting pot of different cultures. People in New York dress very vibrantly as well, so it makes for these eye-popping photos that you don’t even need to know the story. You just see the photo and go, ‘Man, I want this book.’ I don’t know, I feel like Hartford isn’t quite on the map yet and a book probably wouldn’t suit it best. So, I’m still exploring areas as to how I want to get the content out there. It’s kind of a work in progress at this point.
Well, I’m really glad you’re doing Humans of Hartford.
I am really glad that I’m doing it, too. I worked in Hartford at Travelers when I was in college, so between 2006 and 2010 and I was just in and out. I went into Hartford, put in my hours and left, and that was it. Now I’m doing what I don’t think anyone else is doing, which is walking down the street and talking to strangers. Nobody would really do that. I’m getting stories out of people and getting them to open up in ways that nobody else really has, and I think there’s something really beautiful about that. Everybody has a story to tell, especially when I catch people when they’re having a bad day. I talk to them and sometimes I’ve talked to people for over an hour and at the end of it, they’ll say, ‘Wow, thank you so much for listening. I’ve been kinda wanting someone to listen to this for a while because I’ve been holding this in for so long.’
I remember one example that I could think of was this man – 21 years old. He’s already a father and he’s working multiple jobs and trying to go back to school to raise his family. And we talked on the steps of the Wadsworth for over an hour and I said to him, ‘Did you miss your bus?’ because he was waiting for the bus. And he said, ‘Yeah yeah, don’t worry about it. It’s already gone by seven times, but it’s gonna come again. But I really had a good time talking to you. I really appreciate you listening to me because I’ve been needing to talk to someone for a while now.’ So I feel like it’s a good public service at the same time.
It is just a good public service just to get that out there, especially if someone reads that and relates to the story.
I’ve always enjoyed talking to people. I remember being in high school and being an ear for people. If a friend of mine wanted to talk about how stressed out she was about something, etc. I guess it’s something that I’ve always enjoyed doing. Listening to people’s stories. I’ve always been more of an observer. I’m introverted and not very outgoing, so I’m always that person that sits back and listens to somebody else’s story.
So with Humans of Hartford, I always try to just bring positive energy. It’s so easy to be negative. So many people, especially on Facebook every day, are very negative, you know? ‘Oh, car didn’t start’ or ‘Oh, I was at the gym and this happened’. But if you can create positive energy for other people, it can become contagious because someone can see that and go, ‘Wow, I am having a miserable day but he’s right. At least I am living and breathing.’ So I hope that especially people that I talk to and interview for Humans of Hartford, one of their takeaways are, ‘Wow, someone got my story. That’s pretty cool!’ Maybe they’ll have that extra smile on their face and maybe they’ll put somebody else in a better mood.