Some of the participants in Humans of Montclair, a project created by MHS Graduate Cassidy Shapiro. (CASSIDY SHAPIRO)
Some of the participants in Humans of Montclair, a photo project created by MHS graduate Cassidy Shapiro. (CASSIDY SHAPIRO)

This summer, several Montclair residents were featured on Humans of Montclair —a photographic exploration project created on the social media platform Instagram by Cassidy Shapiro.

Shapiro, an 18-year-old Montclair High School graduate, started the project to create a space to document pictures and thoughts of town residents.

Photographing people became the ideal medium for Shapiro to engage with the community and step out of her comfort zone.

“I wasn’t super active in the community, which I think is one of the reasons I felt drawn to this because I feel I didn’t get to connect with all the people in Montclair,” shared Shapiro.

Shapiro discovered her love of photography towards the end of her senior year. She participated in a week-long photography project at her future school, John Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland.

In spring of her senior year at MHS, she interned with Kate Albright, a local photographer and contributor to Montclair Local.

“The internship allowed me to connect with something artistic that I hadn’t had the opportunity to do before, but that I knew I liked,” said Shapiro.

Shapiro's (center) practicing with her camera. Photography became Shapiro's tool to engage and learn from people who live in the community. ( KATE ALBRIGHT)
Shapiro (center) focusing  on a subject with her camera. Photography became Shapiro’s tool to engage and learn from people. ( KATE ALBRIGHT)

With every photograph and opportunity she had to talk to residents, Shapiro felt a connection with her community she learned to embrace. With Albright’s encouragement, she combined those experiences into her independent project.

“My goal is to have fun and learn about people. Even if you think you are the most boring person on earth, I still want to talk to you,” said Shapiro.

  (From left) Shapiro, Dianna, and Rita. Shapiro has a goal of talking and photographing as many different people as possible for her project. ( KATE ALBRIGHT)
Shapiro (left)  taking photos in Montclair.  Shapiro had a goal of talking and photographing as many different people as possible for her project. ( KATE ALBRIGHT)

Shapiro’s project is inspired by Humans of New York, a photography project started on social media by Brandon Stanton in 2010, featuring portraits of New Yorkers and their stories.

Shapiro, for her project, created a list of six questions for her interviewees, designed to reveal their points of view, personal achievements and revelations about their lives.

“I ask people to be featured instead of just walking up to them and saying, ‘Tell me your story.’ It’s more focused and a little less awkward.” said Shapiro.

Shapiro’s questions help ease her subjects into the interview and make them feel more comfortable in front of the camera. For instance, she might ask them which animal sound they think doesn’t match its corresponding animal or inquire about a kind act they’ve done that nobody else knows about. Another question she asks is how their current life compares to what they envisioned for themselves when they were younger. These thoughtful prompts encourage her subjects to open up and share unique perspectives and insights.

To find participants, Shapiro, accompanied by Albright, has taken walks of up to 5 miles to different parts of town this summer.

The Instagram account has photos and quotes from residents of different ages, ranging from five to 79 years old.

“One of the things I wanted to accomplish was to listen to people throughout all stages of life and just to hear what they thought life would be, what it is and what they think of it,” said Shapiro.

When selecting a photo, Shapiro takes into consideration the picture’s quality, whether the person’s expression aligns with the chosen quote, and if the image accurately conveys the person’s energy.

The quote goes through a selection process, too. Shapiro transcribes the entire interview and pays attention to the emotion in the people’s voices.

“I like to capture the inflection in their voice. What seemed to be the most core to them. What do they seem the most passionate about,” she says.


Arshon participated in Human of Montclair.  (CASSIDY SHAPIRO)
Arshon, quoted here, participated in Humans of Montclair.  (CASSIDY SHAPIRO)

This week, Humans of Montclair takes a long pause as Shapiro prepares to leave for college in Baltimore. However, she plans to continue the project during school breaks when she returns to Montclair.

This project has taught Shapiro more than composition, angles, and lighting. The 18-year-old has learned a thing or two from the residents in Montclair.

“Most people aren’t where they expected they would be in life. But they still like it anyway,” said Shapiro. “When I’ve asked them for advice, they said, ‘Do what you love. Spend your time where you actually care about what you’re doing and just be a kind person.’”