“Humans of New Rochelle” at the NRCA Rotunda Gallery

Recent New Rochelle High School graduates Ann Gombiner and Veronica Yu  are both heading to Cambridge this fall to attend Harvard University  — but before they go they have a parting gift for their hometown. For the last three years the duo have produced the “Humans of New Rochelle” Instagram (@humansofnewro), examining and celebrating the city’s diversity through a journalistic lens pioneered by the popular (20 million followers) “Humans of New York” site, and they are turning their posts in to an exhibit that will run at the NRCA Rotunda Gallery from July 16 through August.

The exhibit will draw on their “Humans of New Rochelle” archive and feature photographs of about a dozen subjects interviewed by Gombiner and Yu; each photograph will be accompanied with an excerpt of the HONR interview (the full text will be available via a QR code.) In addition the public will be invited to submit their own stories on notecards when they visit the exhibit.  

Gombiner and Yu will continue adding to their archive over the summer; they will also be working with children and teens at pop ups around the city and holding a workshop with City Historian Barbara Davis on oral histories and how people can share their stories to New Rochelle Public Library’s oral history collection. 

The exhibit and the planned programs are part of SPARK, an immersive, paid, six-week public service program for incoming first-year students in which they develop a public service project at home while receiving ongoing support from Harvard staff, faculty, and student leaders. The “Humans of New Rochelle” exhibit is being co-sponsored by the New Rochelle Council on the Arts (NRCA) and the City of New Rochelle Department of Development.

Inspiration for the HONR

The “Humans of New York” (HONY) blog began in 2010 when photographer Brandon Stanton set out to catalogue the inhabitants of New York by photographing 10,000 people he met on the street. He included quotes and short stories from their lives with his photos, creating a compelling blog that documents the real residents of New York and now has millions of followers on social media.  (@humansofny)

Veronica Yu’s older sister Wenting Yu learned about HONY in her sophomore year at New Rochelle High School when she took Moira McCaul’s “Introduction to Photography’ class. Wenting wrote she found the concept behind the HONY project “so exciting yet so terrifying” that she was inspired to try something similar in her hometown, and set out exploring the streets of New Rochelle with her camera, asking strangers to tell her their stories.

Over the next few years Wenting met HONY founder Brandon Stanton, worked with “Humans Of St. Louis” —  one of the largest “Humans of…” branches —  and, most importantly, she says, “practiced the skills of genuine curiosity and deep listening every single day”.

Wenting says “I left for college about a year after I started HONR and only then realized what a special place New Rochelle is. Revisiting this project now, a generation of storytellers later, I am realizing that this was never my love letter to New Rochelle – I was only ever the messenger. HONR is a collection of love letters, manifested through authentic stories shared by people who are all tied in some way or another to New Rochelle. They are stories of love and loss, of dreams and struggles; they are stories that I ultimately hope will resonate with readers and inspire cycles of empathetic listening.”

Veronica and Ann say that when Wenting  passed the project on to them in 2021 they were “drawn in by how Stanton described the process, one where a feeling of understanding bonds individuals that were just strangers moments ago.” The two continued Wenting’s practice of approaching strangers in parks for interviews, but expanded it to include well-known community figures, aiming to “portray the human behind each public face. With a series of open-ended questions, interviewees highlight the aspects of their life they find most important and shape their story.” 

The duo says their hope is that the physical exhibit “will reach a broader audience and inspire others to find value in their own stories while actively listening to and feeling empathy for the stories of others.”

Theresa  Kump Leghorn, President of NRCA, says she was excited when Gombiner and Yu reached out to NRCA for help turning “Humans of New Rochelle” into an exhibit.  “Humans of New York” is “street journalism” in the best sense, finding the stories that exist inside every person you encounter, and Annie and Veronica have taken that approach to create “Humans of New Rochelle,” which celebrates storytelling while highlighting the diverse community of people who live here.”

The NRCA Rotunda Gallery  — located at New Rochelle City Hall, 515 North Avenue – was created in 2012 to create opportunities for a broad range of visual artists to be seen on a regular basis. The NRCA Rotunda Gallery is chaired by Lynn Honeysett.

About New Rochelle Council on the Arts

The New Rochelle Council on the Arts mission is to stimulate and encourage the study and presentation of the performing and fine arts and the public\’s interest and participation therein. It has been exemplified by our sponsorship of a vast number of exhibitions, theatrical productions, dance recitals, film screenings, lectures, and concert series. To create opportunities for the public to encounter and explore art and increase access to the arts in New Rochelle.

NRCA has been in existence for nearly 40 years — it was created by a resolution adopted by the New Rochelle City Council on April 8, 1975. Our mission is to stimulate and encourage the study and presentation of the performing and fine arts and the public’s interest and participation therein. This is exemplified by our sponsorship of a vast number of exhibitions, theatrical productions, dance recitals, film screenings, lectures, and concert series.