Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science senior Mary Owings created Humans of MSMS a photojournalism project on Instagram inspired by Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York. Photo by: Rachel Brady/Special to The Dispatch
November 13, 2017 11:38:22 AM
Gary Nugyen's "What I Did Last Summer" essay involved climbing Black Virgin Mountain -- what his mother referred to as his "spiritual home" -- biking through the town market and eating street foods with his cousins in Sa Dec, Vietnam, and, best of all, learning to ride a scooter.
But instead of writing it and handing it in to a teacher in traditional essay-style format, the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science senior submitted his journey to fellow student Mary Owings' school project, Humans of MSMS.
"This summer was when the whole family could go together, and we don't know if the next time we visit whether Grandma will still be alive," Nguyen told Owings. "This underscores how fragile life can be."
Nguyen was only one of the students Owings interviewed for the project, which was inspired by Brandon Stanton's Humans of New York. When Owings was elected senior class historian at MSMS, she wanted to document the lives of her fellow classmates and share their stories with her peers and others, the same way Stanton documents the stories of everyday people in New York. So she created Humans of MSMS, a photojournalism project on Instagram.
"My goal for the project is to tell the stories of students, teachers and clubs or organizations at (MSMS)," Owings said. "I saw Humans of MSMS as the best way to record these stories and share them with those outside of MSMS. I thought that this could open people up to the opportunities that MSMS gives and how amazing the people within the school are."
Kenadi Freeman, a senior, and Margarita Baquero, a former biology teacher, have also been featured.
Freeman talked about her experiences growing up on a chicken farm in Wayne County, Mississippi.
"On my parents' poultry farm we raise approximately 264,000 chickens every two months, and we also have goats, pigs and cows," she said. "Growing up on a farm has taught me many valuable life lessons, and it has also piqued my interest in biology."
Baquero talks about her experiences researching frogs in Ecuador. Her colleague was bitten by a "false coral snake," -- which they realized was a real coral snake when his hand became numb and unable to move. Although she didn't have a license, Baquero had to drive the man, his daughter and the other researchers to the nearest hospital.
"After a few hours we learned that he was fine, but the venom got all the way to his shoulder," Baquero told Owings. "If it would have reached his heart, he would have died there. I guess we were pretty lucky!"
Baquero's story is Owings' personal favorite.
"I read that story over and over again," Owings said. "Hearing about her experience with a deadly snakebite is an example of the stories I love to uncover in my subjects."
'Learning about people'
Owings' process of creating a post for the project begins by finding someone to interview and talking to them about what they want to share. They work together to write a small essay-style post.
Owings usually tries to find stories that relate to what the interviewee wants to pursue in the future -- an interesting experience, a summer program or mentorship opportunity, a research project or a recent trip. She asks about the basics of the story and then looks for the specific circumstances or significance of the experience that would create the best piece. What the interviewee chooses to share says a lot about them and what they're interested in pursuing.
Once Owings and the student finish the essay-style post, they send it to the project's sponsor, MSMS English teacher Emma Richardson.
"(The project) is worthwhile," Richardson said. "I applaud Mary ... for coming up with this idea. I think it's a wonderful way for us at MSMS to get to know classmates and faculty members.
"It's a way of giving us insights into their lives," she added. "The more we can find out about people and their stories -- and everyone has a story -- the more accepting and informative we can be."
Richardson edits each post and sends feedback. Though most of the posts are not formal in their tone, they must be error-free and polished.
The final step to the process is taking a picture of the interviewee and posting the picture and the writing on the project's Instagram account, @humansofmsms.
Freeman says that the project has made students more curious about their peers. It gives insight into their lives and information on things they didn't know before or didn't think to ask.
Richardson likewise says it's the insight into people which makes the project interesting.
"I think (people read the project) for much of the same reason I read 'People' magazine in the checkout line of the grocery store -- I'm interested in people," Richardson said. "It is a way of carrying a conversation, though one-sided. It is a way of learning about people."
Owings says the project brings her joy solely through the conversations she has. She loves the things she learns about her classmates and teachers. She would have never known all of these experiences that others have been through had it not been for the project.
Owings plans to continue Humans of MSMS using Instagram as the primary home. Since Owings is a senior, she hopes the project will continue through a successor, either the next senior class historian or another qualified candidate. She hopes the project will grow in popularity and that more people outside of MSMS will follow it.
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