The artist behind ‘Humans of St. Olaf': Kaelie Lund ’16 discusses love of photography and stories
March 14, 2014 • 2,538 views
On Feb. 19, the St. Olaf Facebook and Tumblr communities discovered a new window into the lives of their fellow Oles: ‘“Humans of St. Olaf.” Inspired by the blog “Humans of New York,” the St. Olaf iteration pairs poignant moments from interviews with strangers with a single photo of the individual and has received over 2,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook since its inception. The Manitou Messenger sat down with Kaelie Lund ’16, the creator of “Humans of St. Olaf.”
MM: Why did you start “Humans of St. Olaf”?
KL: My friend actually came up to me one day and said, “You should start a ‘Humans of St. Olaf’ page,” and I looked at her and said, “Yeah, I should!” I ran over to Fireside, got my computer and got the page up on Facebook and Tumblr.
And then I just immediately walked outside, because I saw this girl smoking a cigarette and holding a cup of coffee, and I thought, “Interesting. She’s got vices. She’s got dual vices happening right now.” I went out and talked to her, and she was the first post I made. And I got around 100 likes over the first day, and I thought, “Okay, I guess we have something here that people want to see.”
I guess the “Why?” though is that I love, love photography. I’m not very good at it, but I love being able to capture someone’s personality. I just think that’s the most exciting thing ever. And I love sociology. I’m a sociology, anthropology and women’s and gender studies major. I’ve always enjoyed asking “Why?” Like the games when you’re sitting in your car waiting for someone and you just see someone and think, “What’s their story?” That was always me. I was always making up stories about people. And so I guess it’s better to know their actual stories.
MM: Had you looked at “Humans of New York” at all before your friend told you about it?
KL: Yeah, “Humans of New York” came out and I started following the page once it became popular. It was so inspiring to see how open people were with this guy. I was so impressed. Like, “Oh, he must have supernatural skills!” But just through doing these few interviews, I’ve found that it’s not a supernatural power, but if you listen, deeply listen to somebody, they will tell you so many things about their life. If they know that they are being appreciated and validated and heard… I mean I’ve just heard some of the most incredible stories from people. Yesterday I had one where a girl was in tears, bringing out memories. And she said, “I’m really glad I talked about this, but it was really emotional. I’m glad you’re here. I guess I really needed to talk about that!” So I like that I can be a listener.
MM: Do you ever have questions in mind before you do an interview?
KL: That’s something that Brandon from “Humans of New York” does, he has questions he uses pretty frequently. You can tell. But I don’t know if I like that. I go back and forth between really liking to see the diversity in the answers I would get if I only asked one question, but there are also so many other questions I could ask people! Do I really want it to be just one?
MM: How do you choose which part of an interview to post?
KL: I generally look for a part in the conversation that really brought some life to someone, a conversation that made them really think about it. Especially if they start off with, “Oh, good question,” or, “Oh, that’s hard.” And I try to relate it back to something that has a conclusion. I like being able to loop around somehow, and that is never the same for every conversation. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. So in that case I have to either pull random quotes, or I just won’t use that story, which has only happened one time.
MM: Do you have any favorite memories from the page?
KL: I really enjoyed interviewing Mac. He’s a custodian here who is also a full-time pastor. And actually, Mac and I kind of have a relationship already because my friend and I got him cookies for his birthday. Then he found out when my birthday was, and he got me a cupcake and a card for my birthday. And now whenever I see him, I stop and we chat and talk about our days. So when I interviewed him it was fascinating. I had no idea that he had a second full-time job, let alone that he was a pastor. But it all makes sense. And then someone posted a comment that said, “I remember seeing Mac close his eyes one time when he saw someone playing guitar and just listened,” and I could just picture him doing that. All this stuff made sense: Of course you’re a pastor! Of course, you are!
So that’s probably my favorite one, and it’s also the one that has gotten the most ‘likes.’ I think it’s gotten over 500 likes, the last time I checked. It was really incredible to see that reaction from people, especially about someone who’s not a student or a professor. It’s someone who isn’t as visible on campus as other people… It’s someone who’s doing their job and doing it well.
MM: Do you think you will continue doing this for the rest of your time at St. Olaf?
KL: Yeah, I do. I’ve had a request for people to join and to be photographers, but since it’s only a few weeks old I’ve said, “Not yet!” I would love to turn this into a collaboration eventually, but it’s still my baby right now. I want it to be able to walk before I let it stay with other people. And I like that, but I also don’t want it to seem like I have a “savior complex,” or that I don’t want anyone else to do this. I just want to be able to be a storyteller for a little bit. I’m not an expert, I mean I’m only a week in, but I’m really excited about where it’s going.
MM: So have you gotten any negative feedback about “Humans of St. Olaf”?
KL: Someone today who didn’t know I was behind it said to me in a conversation, “Oh, the ‘Humans of St. Olaf’ page? I think they’re just trying to be Brandon from ‘Humans of New York.’” So I said, “Yeah, but do you know their stories? I mean, the reason I do it is to learn stories about people,” and they were like, “Oh.”
I really like the criticism and feedback because it makes me think about it. And I never want it to be just one- or two-dimensional. I want to hear back from people; otherwise it’s just pointless for me to do it. And yeah, it’s not anonymous, but I think that’s good in a way, because you might see these people every day and finally you’re not just seeing them in passing. You actually know something about them. And maybe you don’t know their name, maybe you don’t know where they’re from, but at least you know that they have a story.