March 22, 2019
Debra Barraud, a 30-year old photographer, blogger and story-teller from Arnhem, runs Humans of Amsterdam, a concept which was started by photographer and writer Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York project. Though it was originally limited to New York, the Humans of label has now expanded to cover several other cities, with different photographer-story-tellers taking to the streets to snap portraits of strangers and ask about their stories.
The trams are delayed and it is chilly outside when I finally arrive in Amsterdam West. Barraud and I are meeting at White Label Coffee on Jan Evertsenstraat, where the atmosphere is studious and the lighting is decent. She sits poised in front of me with her tea, in an emerald green sweater which she says is designed by a friend of hers.
Barraud moved from Northeast Holland to Amsterdam eight years ago to start a minor in Arabic Language and Culture at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (Hogeschool van Amsterdam, or HvA), and says she had always been interested in Middle Eastern culture. Though she was only supposed to stay for six months, she ended up settling down in Amsterdam because she thought the people were so diverse and interesting.
Though she has no formal training in photography, the shutterbug says that she has always been aware of the people in her surroundings, and that she has often carried a camera around with her. “It was to build a time capsule somehow,” she smiles, “Around me, but also of me. If I want to know what I did two years ago, I can.”
In a sense, Barraud has always been focused on capturing stories rather than on obtaining a degree on the technical aspects of taking a good photo.
“I didn’t feel like school was really supporting the entrepreneurial mindset I have, and it took me a long time to realise that I could do it on my own. We’re designed to think like that, like we need some sort of education for it. I was lucky to have supportive parents, and I’m not sure that I would’ve finished school or gotten my diplomas without them. There’s also an illusion that once you have a diploma, you can just step into the world, but nothing is laid out for you.”
Yet, in front of me sits an example of someone who has truly done it on her own, with a little help along the way from family and friends. Barraud stepped out into the world, no photography or journalism degree in her pocket, and created Humans of Amsterdam, a photoblog in which she shares the photos and stories of the strangers she approaches on the streets of Amsterdam. Though she doesn’t classify the blog as ‘photojournalistic’, or ‘investigative’, she does believe she is participating in storytelling through visuals, and in solidifying and facilitating human connection.
Her photography and story-telling journey started in Tel Aviv, where Barraud acted as a dialogue facilitator during her internship for her Cultural Social Education degree at the HAN University of Applied Sciences in Nijmegen, Arnhem. “I wanted to work more with conflict resolution, [so] I worked with Israelis and Palestinians. Social work has always interested me, and bringing people together,” says Barraud, whose mother is a social worker and father, a documentary-maker.
Whilst abroad, she discovered Humans of Tel Aviv and was instantly inspired. “I came back to Amsterdam and realised that there is a lot going on in Europe. People are screaming left and right, and I felt there should be a platform to share the story. I realised how important it was to bring some humanity to the table instead of just politics. When you bring humanity to the table, that’s when you have an open conversation.”
At the moment, Barraud runs Humans of Amsterdam largely by herself – a career that takes the time that cannot be deduced from the pictures she posts – and says she is open to working with other people. “I want it to be a project of the people as well. I’m not so focused on that it has to be mine, and I’m also always working on different things. The disadvantage [of being an employer] is then that I would have to manage people. I don’t want to be a manager.”
The photographer is also concerned about staying true to the nature of the project, which focuses on the humanity of people. “Once things get bigger, the product also becomes distanced. I’m always struggling with that, because I know what works, and to then trust someone else with that”, she trails off, “You really need to find people, who understand the core of the projects.”
At times it’s hard to know ‘what works’, and it’s not always easy to choose a photo, or to establish a hierarchy of information in a long and complex story. “Three hours is probably the longest time I’ve sat down with someone,” she says, looking at the ceiling, “You could write a book about the original story, but what you have to do is find one single line or a message. I’d rather have people take one part in really well.”
Sometimes the story-teller keeps in touch with her interviewees, and she adds that not all of the tales are hard-hitting – there is a balance between light-hearted and profound subjects. “Though I’m more willing to challenge myself now, and ask the questions I hadn’t dared to ask before. […] I’ve learned that you can’t get a real story if you don’t ask the real questions.”
But it isn’t always comfortable to interview strangers. I look at Barraud’s small stature and friendly smile, and ask her about it. “One time near the harbour, you know near NEMO and the public library, some men were fishing. I started talking to one of them, and then his friend. But one of them got jealous that I was focusing too much on the other I guess, and became kind of aggressive. I just had to walk away – but it’s the only time I’ve felt unsafe. I’m quite good at calculating risk, but sometimes you do make a mistake.”
Barraud concedes that it’s difficult to be a female street-photographer. “I also want to have a big diversity of people, but when you’re talking to [aggressive people] like that, sometimes you just can’t. It is scary. And I might have passed by people who could have been really okay with talking. But safety comes first,” she sighs and adds that she doesn’t shoot at night either. “Though there are advantages to being a woman too – photographing kids is easy […] and sure I am less of a threat.”
Despite her discomfort, the fishermen incident isn’t on the top of Barraud’s risk-taking list. “I also dared to take a chance when I didn’t apply for a job, when I told myself I was just going to try to make this work. I always had that inner drive and passion, but the hardest was probably working a lot, and not making any money for at least two years. I was doing it for the passion, but that comes with a lot of insecurities. For a while, I was working night shifts at Abercrombie and Fitch, I was studying in the morning, working in the afternoon, and going to bed at like 2 am. […] But I enjoyed the grind. I was in my 20s and broke, but I was motivated.”
Barraud is the first creative who has described herself as an entrepreneur to me, which is surprising, as most of my interviewees have shied away from associating their work with any terms that might be connotative of a business mindset. “There is this concept that people who do good things in this world shouldn’t get paid for it,” she says in reference to philanthropists and artists, “And that to me is weird. Humans of New York, Brandon Stanton, he has a Patreon page now, and look at the incredible things he has done for people around the world. I would rather invest in that than in a lot of other things, than in the beauty products that bloggers promote […] It’s not commercial, it has a commercial structure.”
Though she expresses her unwavering gratitude for all her privileged experiences, Barraud’s best feeling comes not from having published a book, or from any exhibitions she has put on, but from creativity with a change-making purpose. “What I really love is when I can help people out, like when I started a fundraiser to cover the legal fees for a woman I had met” Barraud says in reference to a legal case fought by Nadia Rashid whose child, Insiya, was allegedly abducted and smuggled out of the EU to Mumbai, India. Barraud says that Nadia is still fighting to be reunited with her daughter.
Barraud, who has previously collaborated on the making of the short film The Dream Diaries, is now thinking of expanding her work to include more videography. “It’s nothing concrete yet, it’s just something in my mind that is boggling, but nothing determined.” For budding street-photographers, she recommends locations such as markets, places where people are performing, and especially De Pijp, which she describes as a city district that can brighten any one of her bad days.
Flo McQuibban is Masters’ student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.