Spotlight On: Savannah Williams

There is a human being behind Humans of Geneseo: freshman Savannah Williams. The international relations and art history double major runs Geneseo’s popular Facebook page––inspired by Humans of New York––and she runs it in style. Armed with nothing but a camera and an idealistic attitude, Williams photographs and interviews random students that she encounters around Geneseo in order to create a digital catalogue of campus life.

Founder and previous operator of the HOG page Danielle Grimm left Geneseo in the spring of 2014. Before Grimm left, she held a contest to see who would take over her role. Students were asked to submit five photos along with a statement about why they wanted to assume responsibility of HOG.

Williams participated in the contest and won, something that shocked her immensely.

“I didn’t think I would get it because I’m a freshman,” she said. “When I received a message from them in late July, I honestly thought it was a rejection. But it was actually a ‘congratulations, you got it.’”

Williams may have only just learned to take portraits during her senior year of high school, but her passion for photography extends back much farther. Williams explained that she developed a love of taking pictures as a child and first joined photography club in middle school. “I used to do a lot of landscapes,” she said.

Taking photographs of people, however, can often be more complicated than inanimate objects; especially when people don’t want their picture taken. Williams’ preference for spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment photos does not always help. “A lot of people are really camera-shy,” she admitted.

Williams looks to the advice of Humans of New York founder Brandon Stanton for inspiration. “[Stanton] says it’s all about energy,” she said. “You have to give off this vibe. You can’t be nervous.”

Having the right energy can make approaching strangers with a camera in hand a lot easier for Williams, but being on a college campus presents its own set of challenges. “You can’t ask certain questions,” Williams said. “You can’t ask, ‘What’s the biggest regret you’ve had in your life?’ because our lives are just starting.”

Of course, the campus is as an essential part of it all. Scrolling through the page makes one feel closer to the school community—which is exactly what Williams wants. “I mean, it’s a small campus,” she said. “So maybe you’ve seen these people but never interacted. But now you get a glimpse into their [lives].” The creation of this sense of closeness is a major goal of Humans projects across the country.

This community support is evident in the HOG project. In the days following the Sept. 26 assault of a transgender Geneseo student, Williams posted a photo and accompanying interview of a transgender student on her page and received an overwhelmingly positive response. The post, however, was not planned. Senior Chris Nasim, the subject of the photo, had messaged Williams requesting an interview before the incident on Court Street.

After the assault made the news, Williams still felt compelled to publish—but also apprehensive. “It was very arbitrary,” she explained. “Coincidental. And so I had to be careful.” Whether or not she had set out to make a statement, 400 likes and counting prove that a statement had been made: one of acceptance in the wake of a public outrage.

At its heart, Humans of Geneseo is about embracing differences. “Everyone is just weird and interesting in some way,” Williams said. “People say, ‘Oh, I’m not photogenic.’ But that’s not true––everyone is photogenic.” With an attitude like this, it’s not surprising that Williams had difficulty choosing a single favorite story or photo. She looks forward to future photographs and new beginnings. “There’s always going to be more,” she said. “I’m excited.”