I recognize Jemel Ganal without ever having met her before. Her tool is what gives her away — a Canon 70D camera that hangs from her neck. Ganal is a second-year cinema studies student and the individual behind “Humans of the University of Toronto” — a photographic census of those affiliated with the university.
Ganal was driven to begin her project by a desire to try something outside her comfort zone: “All I knew is that I wanted to do something outside my box. I wanted to connect with people, and try and help create unity. I originally called the project ‘Strangers Smiling,’ but when I realized most of my photos were of people on campus, I decided to make it one of the “Humans of” pages since Humans of New York was what inspired me.
Over the course of our conversation, Ganal recounts story after story, managing to remember the names of everyone she talks about. She’s taken about a hundred photos in the past few weeks, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she remembers the names of everyone she’s met. She tells me a bit about how she approaches people: “I don’t start by introducing the project. I want to genuinely get to know people, so I start by just talking to them. Sometimes we end up talking for an hour. I learn so much.”
Ganal is incredibly driven — she sets goals for herself and pursues them with admirable zeal. She isn’t afraid to talk about the future: “I want to go to New York City,. I want to already have an international portfolio when I make the transfer to New York.”
Her short-term goals illustrate her commitment to keeping Humans of the University of Toronto honest and up-to-date. She tries to take six photos each day, taking around fifteen portraits on Fridays in order to be able to keep uploading throughout the weekend.
Thus far, the response to her work has been outstanding. We talk about the nature of success, and she gives me two pieces of advice: success requires passion and a bit of spunk: “You won’t succeed if you aren’t passionate. You can’t know what will happen, and that’s something you have to be okay with. All you can ever know is that you’re doing what you love, and that alone should be enough. In order to succeed, you have to go for it — just do it. You can’t sit around thinking ‘should I really do this?’ Just do it.”
The project is only two weeks old and has garnered over 3,500 Facebook likes. I thank her for the advice and for agreeing to meet with me. As our interview comes to a close, she stops me.
“Wait,” she says, “now I have a question for you. Would I be able to take your photo?”
Honoured, I smiled wide for the camera. I continue smiling for the rest of the day.