“Everyone is welcome to tell their stories” – Mushamir Mustafa, Founder.
Every human being on this earth is fighting their own battle at all times. It may be on a global scale like the endless conflict in Palestine where it affects large amounts of people all at once, but it may also be—and more often than not is—on a more individual level. Some stories are told and heard while others are not. Well, it could be because some are willing to share it with the public while a few others prefer to keep it to themselves. But more often than not, it is because there hasn’t been a chance for them to share their stories—or perhaps—no one is willing to listen to them, at least.
Now, that’s not the case anymore. Inspired by the trend first started by Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York, freelance photojournalist Mushamir Mustafa decided to start Humans of Kuala Lumpur in 2012. Fast forward 6 years later, the team has grown diversely to have 15 unique storytellers led by a leadership team who come from different backgrounds and industries, and with over 100 thousand followers on their Facebook page, all of them have one mission in hand—to create change amongst Malaysians.
Speaking of change, what kind of change Humans of Kuala Lumpur strives for? How is it different then from Humans of New York? How can people change just by reading random stories? To seek answers to these questions and more, we met with Amalina Davis, Cristine Yu Ping, and the founder of Humans of Kuala Lumpur himself—Mushamir Mustafa.
Humans of Kuala Lumpur As A Social Advocacy Platform to Create Change in Malaysia
Fuelled by his passion for photography, Mushamir realised that he could do more than just take portraits and tell stories. With today’s advanced technology, change for the better can be made almost in no time—with the power of the viral factor.
“Our stories―most of the time―will be shared and immediately they go viral, and in that way, we can educate and reach out to more people. So I thought to myself: What if we would support a social cause and start supporting the people of the cause? Basically, we are featuring the cause through the humans. With this, I realised that we could become a social advocacy platform―an influencer or a media of sorts, where we use humans to showcase the stories and causes.”
The reality is, it’s not always easy to impose changes on people, especially not just by telling stories of random strangers. However, it is possible when the stories are relatable to others. Amalina, who is also a Transformation Consultant at Sime Darby Property, told us about how people can get touched by the stories, and slowly but eventually create an awareness, or even spark a small act that could create a big impact in the future.
“We had this one viral story about an ex-COO who left the corporate world. From that story, so many people who are facing the same problems of feeling stuck in the corporate world and being unhappy reached out and shared their stories as well. From there we had a lot of reactions from Malaysians who could relate. So, that was a form of change as well—by starting to talk about things that people don’t really talk about.”
It’s All About The Right Hi and A Warm Hello
When asked about how to get people to open up and share personal stories with them, each of them had their own different tricks. For Christine, the aura you give to people determines whether or not you will be able to have a conversation with the person. “I think, for me, it’s always the vibe that you send out to the person. Of course, a smile is the first thing that you should offer because no one wants to talk to a sulky person. But for me, I feel that if you start to open up to people, they will open up in return to you. Humans are mirror images of each other and we are copycats as well, in a way.”
While Christine only takes about 15 minutes to warm up the conversation, things are slightly different for Amalina. “Usually, I’m just friendly. I like to talk to people. At first, I try not to approach them with the whole “I’m from the Humans of KL” things. Some people do that kind of approach, but for me, I just like to talk to them and make them feel comfortable and once they feel like they can trust you enough, that’s when the real juicy stories come out. For me, it usually takes at least half an hour to get the good stuff, it’s not immediately quick click. You kind of just have to wing it, see what kind of questions to ask and tailor it according to our audience”, explained Amalina.
On the other hand, it could be a little harder for Mushamir to warm up to strangers on the streets, especially to those of the opposite gender. “As a guy, it’s more difficult to approach ladies or children for stories, so I have a little bit of disadvantage there. But I don’t mind that because even though you are a guy if you give out a positive energy—the very friendly energy—people will trust you and for some reason, I have a very friendly face so it really helps me as well at times.”
Handling the “Who Are You?”
While most of the millennials nowadays like to take hundreds of selfies and even thousands of ootd shots, they become paranoid or defensive when a stranger suddenly comes out of nowhere, offering to take a portrait of them. This situation is not foreign for the Humans of Kuala Lumpur team either. Facing rejections is a norm in their daily life but that doesn’t stop them from keep trying. In fact, after a few rejections, they have finally figured out ways to counterattack.
“I thought girls will reject me a lot but turns out it was old men who rejected me the most”, said Mushamir. “In Petaling street especially, there was this Chinese uncle, he’s like: ‘Are you from the police?‘ He was that scared, yeah. There was one time, I interviewed this teenager, he was a police informer, so I wanted to post his story but then thinking about it, I will be exposing who he was and his identity, so I decided not to. If people are not okay with the story, so what I would do is take a photo of the shoes or hands or from the back. You have to be creative if they don’t want you to take their photos, and even if you get rejected—that’s fine. There are 30 million more Malaysians”, he added.
“If You Could Interview Anyone…”
“To be honest, I want to interview elder people (senior citizens). Basically, those who have seen Malaya turn into Malaysia and the changes since then. They saw a Malaya that us—young people will never know or remember or feel. You know, during the pre-Independence time, where the whole sentiment was different.”, Mushamir confessed.
“I’d like to interview refugees in Malaysia—even immigrants up to a certain extent—because I think they are everywhere around us, especially living in KL. They are the ones who build our buildings, clean our toilets, and serve us food. But it seems like we just turn a blind eye like they are not really there and I think uncovering these kinds of things will give a place to them. I’m sure they have interesting stories. They had a whole life before they came to Malaysia and ended up becoming refugees. So that’s something I have been trying to arrange”, Amalina explained.
No Stories Left Untold
With the intention to go big, Humans of Kuala Lumpur has plenty of plans on the plate for the next few years ahead. Among them is the expansion of the Malay and Mandarin platforms as well as Tamil and wider social media presence such as a Youtube channel and even print. Technically, Amalina hopes that Humans of Kuala Lumpur could expand into investigative journalism to get more voices heard.
As a premiere platform for human stories in Malaysia, ultimately, Humans of Kuala Lumpur aims to get the story of every single Malaysian featured and leave none untold. From the beggars on the streets all the way to the Prime Minister and even the Agong himself, Mushamir told us that there are no holds barred when it comes to the stories featured on the platform, and the team left with a parting message:
“We hope to see you around the streets of Kuala Lumpur.”
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