The face behind Humans of Newtown
Curiosity and compassion led this local observer to start an online platform and publish a book telling the unique stories from around this amazing neighbourhood.
Jo Wallace has lived in Newtown for over 20 years and loves it. She loves the sense of inclusion, feeling welcome, the idea that anything goes.
“It really comes down to the people…I would always see these amazing creative projects and just random things happening,” says Jo. “These are different people, they’re my kind of people.”
For a long time, Jo had thought about creating a book to capture and share stories and images of the fascinating people she saw around her. They intrigued her.
“[I wanted to know] why they do these things and what they want to bring to people, and just knowing them. I’m just a very curious kind of person, I suppose, and I love people,” says Jo.
It was not until she stumbled upon a particular book while researching a trip to New York several years ago that she finally saw how to manifest her own ideas. The book was Humans Of New York. It was a revelation.
After researching some more and discovering “Humans Of…” variations already existed around the world, Jo decided to set up the Humans Of Newtown Facebook page. Originally, it was just a way to get things rolling and have a repository for content. Then came the blog.
“And it took on a life of its own and there was this beautiful engagement with the community, so I actually kept it going.”
Soon afterwards, Jo was approached to put together a book, Humans Of Newtown (2015), by independent publishers, King Street Press.
From there, she has variously been asked to work on individual projects, but Humans Of Newtown is her main focus - outside her full time marketing job, that is.
As a photographer, Jo is mostly self-taught and intuitive. She doesn’t plan her shoots, preferring to let things happen organically.
“I’ll just look at someone and if they look approachable, I’ll just go up and introduce myself, tell them what I’m doing, what the project’s about, and ask if I can photograph and interview them - and I would say 99.9% of people say yes.”
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. There’s a degree of empathy exchange, building of trust. Once that’s established, you then have to be prepared for anything.
“You don’t know what you’re going to get when you interview somebody. Sometimes I’ve been really surprised that people have poured their heart out to me within 5 minutes…and been in tears and telling me a story that’s deeply moving for them. In terms of how I respond - I’m not a counsellor but I’m deeply privileged that somebody has shared this story with me, so naturally I want to connect with the person, I want to listen to their story and I want to understand it. And there are things that are told to me that I don’t include because I just think it’s too personal or it’s crossed that boundary as a story…”
Some stories have gone into dark and challenging territory, however, overwhelmingly the net result of the project has been positive. People have said it has given Newtown a strong sense of cohesiveness and identity. It has also provided an opportunity for people to approach someone in the street whom they may have seen in the book or online.
For Jo, the project yielded a surprising and very personal reward. Soon after the book was launched, Jo was diagnosed with cancer. It was then that all the love and energy she had put into her community came back to her in spades.
“I guess that’s what community is about, you don’t realise how much you need it until you do,” she says.
Through the book and the project, Jo had fused deep connections and received support she doesn’t believe would have existed otherwise.
“That is what community is - we all give and hopefully, when needed people can take back what they need.”
With life on hold at the moment due to the pandemic, Jo has been substituting photographic portraits with sketches she has done of various Newtown buildings. When things return to normal, she hopes to grow Humans Of Newtown, though at this stage, she’s not sure how. She just knows it will require the input of other generous humans.
“What people take from it they take from it, but I’m always grateful that people give.”
Book available from the website.