The Man Behind The Lens: Humans Of Leeds Photographer Speaks to TSOTA

By June 17, 2015

Art & Photography.


The Humans Of Leeds project has allowed the richness of Leeds’ vibrant streets and the people of the city to be represented through the camera lens. This fantastic photography project has served as a form of social commentary, which has been hugely successful. With well over 18k Facebook ‘Likes’ the project has gathered a large following. Although the artist known as ‘Z’ has been somewhat humble in his own part in the project; regularly asserting that ‘it is about Humans of Leeds not me’, at TSOTA we couldn’t resist finding out a little more about the man behind the lens who has made this project a continuing success. Here Holly Ridge, interviews the man behind it all in an exclusive interview…


I had the fantastic opportunity to interview the illustrious yet anonymous photographer of the popular street photography project Humans of Leeds (HOL). Rare bar on lower Briggate played host to our secluded yet candid interview. Known to the press as ‘Z’, the man behind the camera was accompanied by friend and PR agent Sam Johnson of SLB public relations, who in conjunction with Leeds Beckett University has organised the first Humans of Leeds photography exhibition. Entitled So & So’. This event is currently running at Lamberts Yard retail and events space, which due to popular demand has extended dates until July.


Photos by: • Instagram/Twitter: @tomjoyphoto
[© Tom Joy photography]


On display are a handful of images chosen by ‘Z’, which roughly compact his unique and colourful documentary project, which illuminates the untouched lives of the people of Leeds. Some of the content revolves around his subjects offering advice and sharing messages of optimism whilst also shining a light on neglected taboos around subjects such as mental health.


Photos by: • Instagram/Twitter: @tomjoyphoto
[© Tom Joy photography]


Right from the start of the interview the charming 36 year old IT consultant from Batley gave me a real sense of his passion and love for photography. I asked him how he first got into photography and he recalled always being interested in the subject, even from a young age when he always carried a camera with him. It wasn’t until 2010 when he bought his first DLSR that he expanded his interest and began experimenting with photography projects, enlarging and developing his own skill set.

His first venture was the 365 challenge, in which you take a photo every day for a year. After successfully completing this task, ‘Z’ was on the lookout for a new project.

‘I saw Humans of New York pop up on my news feed one day and I thought this looks quite interesting, I really liked the concept’ he remembers, explaining the inspiration for interviewing complete strangers after asking for their portrait in the street. He admitted that before starting this now epic project that he ‘didn’t really think about what [he] was initially getting [himself] into’, as initially he just wanted to see if he could do it. This seemed like the perfect project for ‘Z’ who was also inspired by British street photographers. He quickly researched the Leeds photography scene but found no claim of a humans or portrait based project. As a result he picked up his camera and began his journey as the first Humans Of Leeds photographer, posting his images directly to his Tumblr page then later onto Facebook.


[M&M, © Humans of Leeds]


He names his influences as local, British photographers Peter Mitchell, Chris Killip, David Meadows and Niall McDiarmid and with these figures as inspiration he clearly stated that his project is portrait based and that he wanted it to be ‘British’, unlike his main inspiration Brandon Stanton (the creator and philanthropist behind the worldwide success Humans of New York).

Stanton’s mammoth achievement of reaching 5,000 portraits hasn’t put ‘Z’ off, as he isn’t interested in numbers. Although he has currently taken 600 photos and has a staggering seventeen thousand followers, his attention is clearly and firmly focused on each individual and their photograph, making sure it is just right. The project is still what it was to him in the beginning: a hobby which he fits around his day job. He usually aims to capture at least two people a day, with the focus on them and their stories and not his own, as he poignantly and humbly tells me.


[James, © Humans of Leeds]


I move on to the question he is asked the most and enquire what he asks people to make them open up so easily, and whether there is a set of prepared questions. He replied that: ‘somebody asked me how I did it, this guy wanted to start up his own in Wakefield. I can’t write a manual how to do it. You can’t teach it, it’s something you have to learn for yourself. It’s a process that you have to learn, adapt to your surroundings and change. I have some set questions but you really need to recognise body language and anticipate questions and responses.’ He went on to discuss how he captures their thoughts and answers and revealed that, ‘What you see written under the picture [the caption] isn’t exactly what has been said’. ‘Z’ simply captures the fine substance of the conversation, condensing the best bits into a neat caption that captures the essence of each person and their conversation in one shot.


[Ella, © Humans of Leeds]


At the opening of the ‘So & So’, ‘Z’ took a step back and embraced his surroundings by purposely avoiding the limelight and remaining incognito. When asked if he would be interested in doing more exhibitions in the future, he welcomed the idea, but it all hangs on on another opportunity arising.

When discussing the future I asked how long he is willing to continue this project, he says there isn’t a time limit in mind and that he’s willing to continue until he lacks interest or perhaps when he ‘feels it is complete’. The future always brings change and ‘Z’ is considering broadening his project to other areas of Leeds to get a wider perspective of people and landscape.


Photos by: • Instagram/Twitter: @tomjoyphoto
[© Tom Joy photography]


Due to the recent success of HONY’s photo book I suggest whether ‘Z’ would be interested in doing something similar with his photographs. At the moment he and Sam are in discussions about producing a book, so it all looks like there will be a lot more of HOL in the future and something for his fans to look forward to.

‘Z’ initially struggled with my final question of who he’d really like to photograph and why, but after much deliberation I think he made the perfect choice:

“There are so many, it’s hard to choose just one! Powerful people in history have a big draw, as do prominent scientists, but if I had to choose just one then I’d have to succumb to the power of Hollywood and choose Audrey Hepburn. Not only was she an icon of both film and fashion, she was involved in large humanitarian causes making her a great role model”.

Holly Ridge


Follow Humans of Leeds on Facebook or Tumblr

For more on Lambert’s Yard visit their website