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A Conversation With: Stefan Boonak and Haneen Mohammed

April 10, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST

With a population of more than 34,000 tigers, walking around MU’s campus can seem like a blur of black and gold.

Smiles are exchanged, but most people never get a chance to get past a friendly greeting. International students Stefan Bognar of Serbia and Haneen Mohammed of Saudi Arabia came up with a way to remedy the lack of personal interaction. Their Facebook account, Humans of Mizzou, lets students share their stories with one other — one photo at a time.

Posting snapshots of life on campus, HOM was inspired by the popular Humans of New York photo project by Brandon Stanton. The pair approach people to conduct brief, but often personal, Q-and-As and take their photo for a post on the site. “We wanted to show how diverse and beautiful people here are, and we thought it was going to be great to get to know people,” Bognar says.

What do you ask the humans of Mizzou?

Stefan: We usually get to know them a bit and then link to the questions that we like to get. We go to the tougher questions. We always say that it’s funny how we ask them the kind of questions you have to answer for college admission essays.

If you had to pick one, what has been your favorite answer so far?

Stefan: The ones that fascinate me are the ones I can never see coming. For example, one guy talked about how he met this girl in Nepal, and the way he was talking about it was really casual. He was saying, “Oh you know, I was just backpacking through Europe and Asia, and I just met this girl in Nepal.” I couldn’t believe what he was saying.

Were you surprised that people were so willing to contribute to HOM?

Haneen: You see people who are happy to talk to you. One girl missed her bus. I was like, “Oh, your bus is coming!” And she was like, “Oh yeah, it’s fine!”
Stefan: Yeah, one girl from China said, “Oh, you smile this much in China, people will think you’re weird.” But especially in the West, it’s totally fine. I think that was our reaction at first, too; especially when we got here, not necessarily when we started the project. Everyone is so friendly.

How do you think the use of social media affects people?

Stefan: I would say this has actually had the reverse effect that it usually does. It usually gives you the illusion of people being really connected to each other on social media, but it’s really not physical closeness. (HOM) may be a step closer to that (physical connection) because you see the people who are saying these things, and they’re strangers.

What have you gained from HOM?

Stefan: You never know what kind of story someone has as they’re just passing by you. And this is kind of helping us get to know those stories. It also really helps you work on your approach to people. We thought it was going to be really difficult to just approach a stranger, to say, “Oh, can I take a photo of you and then talk about your personal stories?” But this really helped working on it.

What’s the benefit of sharing this type of human interaction?

Haneen: There was a girl who struggled with her image, and I think people relate to that.

Stefan: The people who notice some problems they have. It might help them to see that they’re not the only ones.

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