Humans of Quito

Ecuador's Streets Come to Life

"In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a Leitmotiv," said the iconic street photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson. A leitmotiv is a “short, constantly recurring musical phrase associated with a particular person, place, or idea.” This notion of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary has been adopted by many contemporary street photographers all over the world, among them Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York fame stands out.

Humans of New York, or HONY, took the world by storm for its intense portraits of humanity. Through his oeuvre, Stanton has created a microcosm of powerful narratives consisting of segments of people's lives from all walks of life. He has inspired a generation of international street photographers to tell deeply personal, moving narratives of people that often evoke empathy.

Humans of Quito is one such photo project in Ecuador's capital perched on the Andean foothills. While there were many photographers that helped form Humans of Quito, at the moment, there are only two active collaborators. The two have taken it upon themselves to roam the streets of Quito, telling the unique, individual stories of the people they meet.

In a dim-lit cafe located in the heart of the capital, a suave-looking man sits at a corner table, sipping away at his coffee. Distracted, he looked up for a brief moment to exchange pleasantries. Fabian Riofrio, 32, has a day job but a passion for photography has made him a constant contributor to the photo project Humans of Quito. Riofrio joined the project in March 2015 after it took off in the first months of that same year. When asked what inspires him most about the project, he responded with a glint in his eyes, "To reveal anonymous faces in the city. Stories that can generate a little bit of empathy. It's the feeling when you identify with someone's struggles."

Like its New York variant, Humans of Quito is rooted in the idea of creating an "exhaustive catalog of the city's inhabitants" and has attracted over 28,000 likes on its Facebook page, while Instagram has a little over 1,100 followers—all within a span of only 23 months.

Since the launch of Humans of Quito, Riofrio has collaborated with nearly 15 audio-visual producers and photographers. He now works with one active collaborator, Maria Mercedes Barahona, 26, a graduate student utilizing her time to gain experience as a photographer. Barahona exudes vivaciousness and considers herself a people person.

"My studio is the street," she said. “Sometimes, when I feel depressed because of life and the world, I remember that I have the camera and the ability to go and talk to the people.” When Barahona first started, she would take nearly 40 images or even more just to get that one perfect shot. But with experience, she now gets away with taking just five to seven shots.

It's this gift of listening that helps Barahona with stories that evoke and at times even provoke. It's that astute yet stoic discovery of another person's life and their existence, sometimes offering even a profound glimpse into one's soul. It's that level of engagement that goes beyond reading a face. The stage, i.e. the street, could be a neutral ground but the performances are most often exuberant and rarely dull.

"I think you are like a mirror, it's your reflection. If people see that you are being nice and you want to listen to them, they're gonna want to talk to you. It's not a rule, it's just logic," said Barahona.

Although some have questioned the integrity of what a project like HONY represents, deeming it clickbait-oriented due to its focus on capturing mere snippets of people's lives, others argue the ability to translate people's life histories, anecdotes and conversations into moving snippets that could potentially impact others is a simple yet remarkable idea.

"I have this rare gift of making people talk! They just feel comfortable in my company," said Barahona. And sometimes people reveal deeply personal accounts of their lives, she adds, reflecting that it's easier to indulge when you're a stranger. Sometimes when people wish to remain anonymous or feel uncomfortable or intimidated to put their faces on a public platform, Barahona focuses on a detail, such as an accessory they're wearing, or a feature she believes reflects their personality.

An 18-year-old girl who sells flowers on the streets of Centro Historico, Quito's Old Town, divulged something deeply personal to Barahona. Something that she hadn't shared with anyone before.

Prior to being a flower seller, she used to work at a school where she was sexually assaulted by a professor. Scared no one would believe her, at first she didn't raise her voice against the professor, but when she finally mustered the courage she was fired. After her ordeal, she took to selling flowers and plants on the streets to support her child, keeping the secret buried within.

As she opened up to Barahona, the girl was in tears and requested her image not be published, fearing the man who assaulted her would identify her. Barahona decided to take an image of the girl, only revealing her eye, surrounded by the plants the girl sells. "I think she felt free because I was nobody in her life. It's all about human connections," said Barahona.

For Riofrio, a rock of the project, the drive "to meet people and get out of your own bubble is a constant inspiration." But it isn't always easy to have an in-depth conversation with people on the street, so to overcome this barrier, they decided to reach out to people willing to be interviewed for the project. Over a thousand people responded to their call, expressing an interest in being interviewed. "Our objective is to go deep and keep the conversation going but it isn't possible to do that all the time," said Riofrio. "Finding time is always challenging."

Humans of Quito is a non-profit venture and all resources come from collaborators' pockets. It is a passionate collaboration between artists as many past collaborators have had day jobs or worked as freelancers. “We don't get anything from the project except the emotional satisfaction and joy of talking to different people,” he said.

The aim of Humans of Quito is not necessarily to depict the socio-economic plight of Ecuadorean people, emphasized Riofrio. If anything, the aim of the collective is to refrain from focusing on the "more exploited aspects" of the city. Something that's very common in these sort of endeavors is the exploitation of poverty, something Riofrio clearly feels uncomfortable with. 

“We are in a country that's developing, has poverty and the conditions ... aren't ideal.” At the same time, the intention is not to “hide certain aspects of reality in the city,” explains Riofrio, “but to not try and show the sight of 'pobrecito' (“poor thing”) as we call it here in Ecuador, 'Oh, pobrecito, look at the shoe-shiner, poor kid!'”

Portals such as Humans of Quito are a brief glimpse into people's lives. Some of these tidbits, one might relate to while others some might find shocking.

Barahona signed off, “I believe in people and I believe that everyone has something to say. And I believe when people share their stories, they create a community. Everyone knows something, nobody knows nothing.”