Faces of the City
Susan Campbell and Humans of Ann Arbor
by Shelley Daily
From the December, 2013 issue
Susan Campbell walks briskly down N. Fourth Ave. with her Pentax camera around her neck, pursuing an older couple who stride arm in arm, bundled together against the cold. She approaches them with a smile and asks if she could take their picture for her Facebook page, Humans of Ann Arbor. "I think we'll pass, thank you," the man says.
It's a rare rejection. Campbell launched her project last year--one of hundreds around the world inspired by Brandon Stanton's Humans of New York, a Facebook page that features portraits of everyday people in the city. Since then, she's asked hundreds of Ann Arborites to pose, and she estimates that 95 percent of them have agreed.
Campbell admits it was "intimidating at first to talk to strangers." But now nothing will stop her. Walking on, she soon fixes on her next target: a mother and her young daughter toting bags from the Farmers Market. They're willing to be photographed, and Campbell asks them a couple of questions as she shoots. They share a love of art, but the mother says it's really her daughter who has the talent. The daughter looks up at her mother and grins. Click. One of her favorite things about HOAA, Campbell says, is capturing the "love and emotion between people."
Campbell is a fresh-faced forty-two-year-old with kind brown eyes and an edgy brown bob with funky red highlights. She owns Ann Arbor's Susan K Photography (her middle name is Kay), which specializes in children's, family, and event photography.
Campbell remembers being "intrigued" when one of her Facebook friends shared a photo of a man with a mohawk from Stanton's Humans of New York page. She claimed the Humans of Ann Arbor name in May 2012. Since she started posting regularly last fall, she's built a following of more than 3,000 "likes" (see "The 3,000th 'Like,'" p. 42). She spends about twenty-five hours a week on her business and another ten hours photographing, editing, posting, and monitoring
her online project--although she says it's "not overly produced or glamorous--just [photos of] people doing what they're doing," usually with a note about her encounter, or a brief mini-interview.
"People are so lonely," she says, "and the 'Humans' projects are a balm for that." She usually spends just a couple minutes with a photo subject, but there are times she'll talk for a half an hour or more. She lets the humans "lead the way."
Campbell moved to Ann Arbor from Chicago four years ago with her husband, JT Anderson, and their son Oscar, now thirteen, when Anderson took a job as creative director at Enlighten, a digital marketing company. She'd lived in Chicago for sixteen years and attended Columbia College's photography program. Campbell was an apprentice under Mark Brown--a popular Chicago photographer who has been featured on Oprah--eventually managing his studio. There, she says, she learned all there was to learn, from how to create an heirloom photograph to marketing.
She was ready to strike out on her own. But when she arrived here, she found herself "mourning for Chicago and my life there." She missed her small neighborhood in the big city. So she reached out to an elderly neighbor, got a puppy, met more neighbors on her walks, and started getting photo jobs after a friend shared her business flyer at a prenatal yoga group.
She took her first HOAA photo in June of last year, in her neighborhood at Maryfield Wildwood Park. She circled the park on her bike for several minutes, her camera in the basket, eyeing a group of adults. She finally approached them nervously. Their response: "Oh, sure!" "But I took a terrible, blurry shot!" she laughs, which offended her own "perfectionistic tendencies." (She later took it down, but reposted it on the page's one-year anniversary.) Since that day, her photos have gotten better, and the project has become "an ethos I've taken on ... you're being brave, you're crossing boundaries."
Being brave is nothing new to Campbell. When she was twenty, the Joplin, Missouri, native was on a full-ride debate scholarship at Missouri State when she was diagnosed with early-stage Hodgkin's disease. Campbell went through chemo and radiation and lost all of her hair. It "threw me on a total rollercoaster," she says, and "challenged my identity." The debate superstar, who'd won a state championship in high school, hibernated at her mother's home until some friends lured her out to Colorado, where she worked for a year as a ski lift operator.
"I had to do something big to put myself in a different direction," she says. "Little by little I gained confidence in my body again." Not a good skier, but hanging out with friends who were, she got tired of being left alone at the top of the slopes while her friends barreled down the mountain. She saw it as a metaphor for her dilemma: "I was terrified of embracing life."
A skiing friend told her, "You've got to let yourself get out of control." She did, and became a better skier--and when she returned home she decided she was on the "wrong path with debate." She bought a camera and got her first lens at a thrift store. "I've always been kind of poetic, a dreamer, lost in my imagination a lot." For her, photography is a "touch point--a way of documenting what's in my imagination."
When her high school friend JT Anderson, who was studying film at Columbia College, encouraged her to come to Chicago and study photography there, she did. The good friends quickly fell in love--and soon eloped to Las Vegas to be married.
Downtown Ann Arbor is Campbell's favorite place to shoot, because people are most receptive there--"maybe because they're more camera ready," she guesses. She also likes the mix of people around Plum Market and Value World on the west side. She strives, wherever she is, to get diverse shots--although she's noticed "it's a lot easier for the privileged to open up."
"When I'm afraid to ask someone, I make myself do it," she says. "If I'm afraid [that means] there's a tension in me I want to explore." She remembers wanting to ask a young woman wearing a hijab if she could photograph her but worried she'd decline. She asked anyway. "I got this beautiful shot of her eating a cupcake," she says. Campbell also recalls hesitating to approach a group of tattooed and pierced young adults--but when she did, "they were nice to me."
The majority of subjects are pleased with the photos, but if someone asks her to remove their photo from her page, she will. Her most popular shots so far, are of Kelly Rothe (see box) and of Blimpy Burger's owner on the frenzied final day of business. Each has been viewed online more than 30,000 times.
Her photo encounters from today include a woman in glasses and a colorful hat who cuts through the Farmers Market on her way to work in the kitchen at Zingerman's Deli; a rugged farmer from Tantre in his worn Carhartt coat; a freckled beauty peering through the glass terrarium she bought at Treasure Mart; and an anonymous man with a red scarf and long, curly hair walking his dog named Rodin. The guy with the dog already has drawn a few female admirers in the comments (but hasn't identified himself yet).
Campbell doesn't post her full name on the page but says she isn't really trying to be anonymous--"Susan K" is just a nickname from her childhood. She says it's difficult for her to "turn off" the project--she's always wanting to document a new face, even when she's "off duty" and out with her husband and son. She enjoys collaborating with other people--especially some U-M students she's worked with--who follow her, share fresh ideas, and sometimes contribute photos.
She plans to continue Humans of Ann Arbor for at least another year. Brandon Stanton, who acknowledges the "Humans" spinoffs but isn't affiliated with them, published a coffee-table book of his portraits that hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Campbell's thinking of doing a calendar. But for now, she sees the project as a "gift" she can share. She simply wants "people to stop and have a moment to think about how cool life is."
the 3,000th "like": Kelly RotheWhen Susan Campbell promised to photograph the 3,000th person to "like" her Humans of Ann Arbor Facebook page, Kelly Rothe was determined to be that person. The twenty-year-old EMU student hovered over her computer, watching the numbers rise. She hit the "like" link at the perfect moment, and got her wish: her photo appeared on HOAA in early November.
Rothe wasn't just seeking a moment of fame, Campbell says; she had an "amazing and unexpected" reason for wanting to be photographed. In May, Rothe will become the youngest person in Michigan-and possibly the country-to have a preventive double mastectomy. Rothe's mother died of breast cancer when Rothe was nine, and her mother's sister also died of the disease. When Rothe was eighteen she learned that she tested positive for the BRCA gene mutation, which predicts she will have a 90 percent chance of getting breast cancer in her lifetime-and, she says, "this type of breast cancer hits hard and fast." Rothe, who says she's "not one to hide," saw HOAA as a "nice opportunity" to go public with her story.
Within days, the post was shared more than 100 times and "liked" by more than 1,000 people, with comments such as "strong, amazing young woman" and "incredibly brave and smart." Rothe says she's been "on cloud nine," and that "no amount of support is too much support."
In the HOAA photo, Rothe holds out her arm, displaying an "I love you" tattoo over her wrist. The handwritten message was scanned from a journal her mother kept from the time she was pregnant with Rothe up until she was three. She says she placed the tattoo on her wrist because as a young teen she would cut herself there.
Although Campbell didn't share every detail of Rothe's story on HOAA, she says initially she was nervous about the post. "I want to take good care of the people who tell me their story," she says, and the serious subject matter combined with the possibility of negative commenters made her wary. But she says she's "so happy for Kelly" and the positive responses she's received-and she likes that HOAA gave her a platform to reach out to others. "This might help someone else to be brave-and maybe not just about cancer, but about how they navigate in the world," Campbell says.
"I feel so lucky to have this [HOAA] project ... sometimes it's so silly-and sometimes it's serious," Campbell says. "But that's life, right?" -S.D.
[Originally published in December, 2013.]