What began as an early-morning encounter between Imrul Islam ’17 and a custodian in his dorm has morphed into a campus-wide phenomenon. Superhumans of Vassar, Islam’s daily (well, almost) blog containing snapshots of students, faculty and staff, has gone viral.
What makes the snapshots captivating are the genuine expressions on his subjects’ faces (“There’s nothing worse than a forced smile,” Islam says), the pithy quotes he gleans from them and the witty commentary he often adds.
A native of Bangladesh, Islam first picked up a camera about five years ago after admiring some of the striking photos some of his friends and acquaintances were posting on Facebook. “I thought to myself, ‘I wish I could do that,’” he says.
When he moved to New York City a year before matriculating at Vassar, Islam became familiar with a popular blog and accompanying book called Humans of New York, by photographer Brandon Stanton.
Following Stanton’s blog may have planted the seed, but Superhumans didn’t fully sprout in Islam’s mind until he posted the photo of the custodian on his Facebook page one morning last September. He took the picture as he was returning to his room in Josselyn House after an early breakfast at the All Campus Dining Center following an all-night study session. “Meet Rachad, one of the many grounds staff who wake up at ungodly hours to keep Joss in livable condition,” Islam wrote under the photo.
Within a couple of hours, the Facebook “likes” and comments about the photo were flooding in, so he decided to snap a few more of people he encountered on campus – many of whom he knew, some of whom he didn’t. When Islam took a picture of a young girl riding a bicycle near Josselyn, he commented to a friend, Sino Esthappan, that she was one of the “humans of Vassar.” “Sino responded, ‘No, they are super human,’ and the name stuck,” Islam says.
Almost no one has declined his requests to photograph them, but many of Islam’s favorites have been taken when he is not thinking about the blog and runs into someone by chance. He says he gets the expressions he wants by talking constantly to his subjects while he’s taking their pictures. “It’s a way of helping them relax,” he says but adds he also knows when to be quiet: “I keep the questions to a minimum and let the people talk about what they want, and they often tell a compelling story in just one or two minutes.”
As Superhumans of Vassar gained popularity, Islam began to get requests from people on campus to be part of it. One of the most poignant came from Anu Datta, one of the 11 military veterans who joined the freshman class this year. Datta talked to him about the domestic violence she had endured and an ongoing custody battle with her ex-husband over their young daughter. “For Anu to have the courage to talk about these things was really touching,” Islam says.
He plans to major in neuroscience but says photography will always be a part of his life. He has published photos of street children and beggars in his hometown of Dhaka and has posted some on a website entitled, Humans of Bangladesh.
Islam says his busy schedule at Vassar sometimes prevents him from posting a photo for a day or two, “but I make sure I post at least five a week.” And while he’s been “overwhelmed” by the reception Superhumans of Vassar has received, two of his fans have tempered that enthusiasm with some caution. “When I sent some of the photos to my sister in Bangladesh, she was thrilled and amazed,” he says. “Then I sent them to my parents. They told me, ‘This is very nice, but shouldn’t you be concentrating on your studies?’”
Credit: Carlisle Stockton