The University of Toronto campus community includes more than 100,000 students, faculty and staff, each with their own, unique story. Yet in the rush from class to class, and between campus and home, we sometimes miss connecting with the people around us – and that’s unfortunate, says Jemel Ganal, a third-year student in book and media studies.
Last year, Ganal found a way to help people at U of T share their stories with each other, launching a photo blog called “Humans of the University of Toronto.” Modeled after a similar venture in New York, Ganal takes photos of individual students, staff and faculty members and posts them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with a short piece of text about the person.
“People at U of T have amazing stories, sometimes you just have to ask,” says Ganal. “You can sometimes feel like a number at this university. I find that showing human faces and human stories helps combat that.”
Ganal says photos of older people in particular seem to strike a chord with her audience – and personal stories about love or a painful experience. One of her most popular shots captures an elderly couple, now in their late 80s, who met at U of T 68 years ago. “They’ve been together ever since,” she says. “It was the cutest thing.”
The project, which aims to build a tighter-knit and more engaged U of T community, has so far existed only on social media. But for three weeks this winter – until February 14 – a selection of Ganal’s portraits is on display in the real world, at Hart House, with captions that describe each person’s opinion on social engagement. A space next to each image in the exhibit allows viewers to attach their own opinions via Post-It notes.
The success of Humans of the University of Toronto has helped boost Ganal’s own career as a freelance photographer. The Office of Student Life hired Ganal to photograph staff members to celebrate their contributions to students’ success. “We have so many staff who are unsung heroes – people who have an important role in students’ lives,” says U of T provost Cheryl Regehr.
One of Ganal’s earlier photos is of Steve Hoselton, a senior lecturer in the book and media studies program. Ganal asked him what he liked most about being a prof. “For sure the students,” he said. “They make me excited to teach…” In response to the photo, one student wrote: “Favourite teacher ever. Such a great guy!”
The Humans of University of Toronto Facebook page has more than 9,000 followers, but Ganal is hoping to spread the project even further, sharing photos and stories of people who study and work at all three campuses. “This is all about celebrating the people of U of T,” she says.