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'Humans of Penn State' Helps Photographer Feel Less Isolated

by on October 05, 2014 1:45 PM

Emily Paulsen says she’s not a social person, but she strikes up conversations with strangers almost every day.

When the Penn State sophomore first came to campus, she says she felt “incredibly alone.” She worried that she wouldn’t fit in, that she didn’t dress right or act right to make friends, that she’d have difficulties bonding with other students.

Then Paulsen found solace in an unexpected place: a slightly dated Nikon D80 camera, with neither a lens cap nor a strap.

Though she’d spent some time repairing and selling vintage Polaroid cameras as a hobby, she’d had no real training as a photographer. But when she stumbled across the popular Humans of New York page on Facebook, she found inspiration.

“When I first discovered Humans of New York, I spent four or five hours scrolling through, reading every single thing that they’d done,” Paulsen says. “I thought it was so cool.”

Humans of New York is a project started by photographer Brandon Stanton, featuring portraits of people on the streets of the Big Apple that are accompanied by a quote from the subject. In an appearance at Eisenhower Auditorium last Thursday, Stanton talked about how his work ranges from deeply personal to comic in tone, His project has become an Internet sensation and has led Stanton to take similar portraits all over the world.

Paulsen’s reach is a little bit smaller, but her Humans of Penn State project is changing her world, one conversation at a time.

She says there was “literally no catalyst” for starting her project; she "just woke up with the idea" in her head. In addition to her rigorous studies in energy engineering and her two part-time jobs, Paulsen jokes that she started this project because she likes not having free time – but there’s a more honest reason behind her photoblog. 

“There are so many people here, and there’s a huge disconnect between everyone,” Paulsen says. “A lot of people don’t realize that there are other people they can connect with all around them.”

Though she still suffers from bouts of social anxiety, Paulsen is learning how kind other people can be. In between classes, she looks for “people who look like they have something on their mind” and mentally prepares herself to walk up and introduce herself.

She runs through her speech in her head: ‘Hi, I’m Emily. How are you? I’m doing a project called Humans of Penn State …’ Sometimes she loses her nerve and lets the opportunity pass, but more often than not she finds the simple courage to try and connect with a total stranger.

“I’ve had a lot of people say to me after we’ve had a deep conversation, ‘Wow, I didn’t even realize I needed to talk about this,’’ Paulsen says.

Aabout half the people she approaches turn her down, which she says is “pretty discouraging.” But she hasn’t let that slow her up – she has two weeks' worth of posts queued up on the Facebook page from successful conversations.

Sometimes Paulsen gets so wrapped up in a conversation that she’ll actually miss her next class. A few of her subjects later found her on Facebook, and have since grown into actual friendships. 

“I feel like I’m doing something good. On a large scale maybe I’m bringing people together, and on a small scale I hope I’m brightening people’s days a little bit,” Paulsen says. “It’s helping me talk to people, which is nice. I don’t feel as isolated anymore.”

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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for StateCollege.com who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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