Humans of Jerusalem

The Facebook page featuring the photographs and accompanying stories of random people on the capital’s streets presents a colorful slice of Holy City life – and the residents who make it so special.

'Humans of Jerusalem' facebook page (photo credit: SIMCHA JESSEL)
'Humans of Jerusalem' facebook page
(photo credit: SIMCHA JESSEL)
Simcha Jessel, a young man who made aliya from Toronto as a toddler, is singlehandedly trying to breathe new life into the Humans of Jerusalem project.
Modeled after the wildly popular Humans of New York photo blog that has over 15 million “likes” on Facebook, the newly launched Humans of Jerusalem Facebook page has already passed the 2,000-like milestone.
Since August, the photos of people on the streets of the holy city include a sliceof- life quote from the subject about his or her life (but not their name or age).
Remarkably, in a social media world where people often take potshots at one another, Humans of Jerusalem has not received a single negative comment thus far.
There is a parallel account on Tumblr, a microblogging social media platform that Jessel says appeals to a more liberal crowd and also offers higher quality images than Facebook. Jessel, who grew up on Moshav Matiyahu near Modi’in and currently serves in the IDF, is delighted with “the absolutely outstanding amount of engagement and interaction the Humans of Jerusalem project has [on social media]. People want this product. I don’t have to persuade anyone; they genuinely want to be a part of it.” His goal is to have at least one new post every two days.
Jessel worked as a professional cinematographer for several years, “telling a story with video.” He was trained to look for, and capture, small moments that occur Humans of Jerusalem outside the main event. This led naturally to doing street photography, where, according to Jessel, “the whole street is your model and the sun provides your lighting.”
With street photography, Jessel aims to “tell a story with a message that activates your brain cells. It’s got to stimulate the thinking part of you.” Telling the story is the main thing. “The photo is a place to rest your eyes.”
Jessel’s comfort level with street photography has evolved while working on the project. “At first, I didn’t have the guts to approach people, so I would post the picture and add an inspirational quote.”
Later, he would take a picture, “then go up and talk to the person – and that’s been successful more or less. Now, I ask if I can tell their story and take their picture.”
Though Jessel started Humans of Jerusalem modestly, he has big plans for the project. “I’m a one-man band. I’m the only one managing the Facebook page and uploading stuff. At the moment, there are virtually zero expenses.
“But I see this as something much bigger.
There’s an expectation of what will be.
When you take on a very important project, you can’t abandon it when life gets complicated. I’m bringing in other people because I need people from every spectrum of the population of Israel.
“I have worked with a haredi guy who takes pictures in Mea She’arim,” he says.
“I’m working with a religious woman named Matla Rivenson-Schleider from Ramat Beit Shemesh, and with Nadav Shalev, a 17-year-old heavy metal music fan who loves photographing at the skateboard park near his house. And with Rafi Koegel, who is 20 and has already worked alongside some of the biggest names in the business. Their work will gradually start getting featured on the Facebook page; I’m curious to see if they will get different stories and different reactions from people.
“All the people that I’ve recruited for this project, we have a code of honor that we will never sell out,” explains Jessel. “Right now, I really believe I’ll never sell out, make it commercial or sell ads. I’m creating a network of people and a code of honor that we keep each other honest. This project is very much a part of what I am and my style of photography.”
THERE IS a lot of skill involved in getting a Humans of Jerusalem story, and Jessel finds himself mentoring aspiring street photographers. People who become photographers because they feel most comfortable behind the lens have to get over their reluctance to approach strangers on the street, and have to learn how to be interested enough in a person to get the story. Jessel found that opening up about his own life and trading stories helps his subjects open up and tell their stories.
Humans of Jerusalem is always accepting new photographers. Shutterbugs are attracted to the project and find that joining a community is infectious. It’s been Jessel’s experience that this project sells itself to other photographers.
For the photographers, there can be a therapeutic aspect to taking pictures of strangers on the streets of Jerusalem and asking about their lives. “I started doing this to teach myself to be interested in people’s stories. The project puts me out of my comfort zone: Getting to know people. Making new friends. Listening.
In my opinion, someone who runs a project like this, you have to be a person who genuinely loves everyone. I’m working on myself to genuinely love every single person.”
Besides adding other photographers to the Humans of Jerusalem project, Jessel is thinking creatively about expanding the project in other ways, such as integrating video into the mix. “I have a guy, an outgoing young reporter named Natan Epstein, who’ll be covering our cinematography.
My idea was to do interviews. I want to start a YouTube channel. The content there would have to be unique to this channel.” He would also like to expand Humans of Jerusalem to Humans of Israel; there is already a Humans of Tel Aviv project in place.
There was a prior attempt to launch Humans of Jerusalem, and their work is still on Facebook, but there haven’t been any new photos for the past year. Jessel said he reached out to them to collaborate but hasn’t heard anything back.
Asked why the capital is fertile ground for the project, Jessel’s enthusiasm pours out, “The sheer variety, diversity and color of people. Every single kind of person, skin color, language, political affiliation, occupation – we have everything here because everyone wants to be a part of this great city. Jerusalem is not as large as New York, but we have every bit of the diversity and as many fascinating stories to tell.”
Jerusalem is a city of complicated politics and Jessel would like the project to reflect the range of political opinions, but he draws the line at hate speech and won’t profile “extreme views that are driven by malice and hate.” Nevertheless, controversial or edgy stories can be told in a neutral way, “if a picture is taken and the story is told from an insider.”
“Anyone who has ever appreciated Humans of New York loves our stuff.
Humans of Jerusalem is a wicked, positive hasbara [public diplomacy] tool,” asserts Jessel, who promotes Humans of Jerusalem content to pro-Israel groups on Facebook. “These groups have few Israelis or Jews, so they lap up authentic Israeli content.”
Jessel thinks that Humans of Jerusalem also offers value to immigrants, making it easier for them to stay in Israel. How so? “It shows you the true heart of Israelis. To Israelis, staying too calm seems robotic; where Americans and Europeans see Israelis as rude, they see themselves as being real. So the project is also a tool of absorption, providing a way to understand the culture better.”
Jessel suggests that his project also helps those who live and work in Jerusalem, by “simply telling people’s stories – so you know the stories of people you see in the street. You might have more compassion, because the project humanizes the person and makes it possible to better understand them.”
Humans of Jerusalem aims to provide an upbeat message “of goodwill, positivity and cooperation. Even struggles of hardship are positive in their determination to push through. This project is a sacred umbrella with certain expectations.
“This has turned into something much bigger than my personal project. Now, other people support this project for the message of goodwill.” • Visit Humans of Jerusalem: Facebook – JerusaLens Tumblr – http://humansofjlem.tumblr.