Struggles You Choose: Peter Varga – Humans of Dublin

Posted 2 weeks ago in More

DDF apr-may-24 – Desktop

If you’re not aware of Humans of Dublin, chances are, someone you know is. They’ve probably been featured in one of his portraits, where he delicately frames his subjects accompanied by a short snippet from what is obviously, a much deeper conversation. There’s something personal, important, a secret or a quiet thought they simply haven’t shared.

Most recently, the charismatic smile behind the camera, Peter Varga, has conspired with the Culture Date With Dublin 8 festival to create an exhibition reflecting on community, endurance and spirit, through the lens of the people who live there, who create the culture, and who bring that part of the city to life. 


“It’s a really huge experience. Whenever you work with these organisations, it brings with it so much in the way of opportunity.”


It’s amazing how far you’ve come. But then, what you do, presenting these snapshots of individuals where you really capture the essence of a person. You manage to bring out a rare honesty in people.

One thing I always tell people is that the full experience of the interview will be mine, and mine alone. I can grow and I can enjoy the whole conversation, knowing that I can never give a full hour and a half interview justice. I can only offer a fraction, or a sound byte.

You have to develop an interest in people that is beyond just wanting to get answers for your questions. It’s so much better when people feel you’re truly interested in them. So the stories that people don’t want in the final piece, those are as important as the ones I share, because they affect me. After 2500 interviews, or more at this stage, it has changed me a lot throughout the years.


How so?

My wife studied psychology, and they have this theory on how the brain develops. When you’re younger it’s faster and as you get older it’s slowing down. But in the middle, every five years, your whole personality changes around every five years.

It’s measurable. Though because of Humans of Dublin, I feel I’ve been a different person every year, simply because I was able to distill those experiences.


The stories you do share are often so intimate, and familiar.

If you ask the right questions, if people feel that you are truly interested in them, they will open up. They will tell you things you would never understand otherwise. I never knew my grandparents, for example. Through Humans of Dublin, I was able to ask the questions and advice I wasn’t able to ask them. To get the perspective of someone in their seventies remembering their thirties.


You’ve talked to people from every walk and station of life. What have you taken away from it?

Despite technology, society, and everything developing really quickly, the base problems that still affect everyone on the day to day are always the same. For example:  I’m now discovering what the role of a father is in a family, because my father left when I was the age my daughter is now. It was never a problem, because my mother gave me unconditional love. I never had to fight for it or prove my worth for it. There are traumas that take you a long time to discover. I’ve talked to lots of people about trauma and generational trauma and I understand that most people who have issues with drugs or alcohol or those kinds of things. They have no other choice. The traumas they have faced, and they don’t get the opportunities that people take for granted.

We could talk about Tara, from Noel’s Deli on Meath Street. She was raised by her auntie, who took her in with four brothers and sisters and raised them with that unconditional love. And you can feel it, when you speak to her. The environment may not have been ideal, but you can feel it from her that she was raised that way. A lot of that generation went down a bad path, drug dealing or what have you. And I was curious as to why she didn’t make those choices. I feel it was having that childhood foundation of unconditional love.


You also have a keen eye for fascinating subjects.

I used to be a person who walked around with my head down, headphones on, just walking through obstacles. Now I’m always scanning for faces. I know each of those people have stories. I know that all I have to do is walk up and ask them a question. It’s amazing. It’s a little like fishing. You pack your stuff, you go to the lake, and you wait. I do the same, I go into the city and start walking. You get a little more adrenaline, and when I see some people, it’s almost as if I feel I should talk to them. But like fishing, you can never predict what you’re going to get.


It’s striking how you present people, immortalizing these snapshots of very honest moments.

I don’t want people to think I’m talented in any way. It’s that 10,000 hours. I was in an uncomfortable enough place where I had no other choice but to change. I already knew there was nothing left for me to work toward in the coffee shop. I had won the latte art championship, and I knew everybody who came in. I knew who I was going to meet, what I was going to do. I needed something new and thought, “Photography sounds good”.

I was so afraid of going back to study, having been dyslexic growing up. It was one of the ways of studying something where you don’t really study. You’re playing with your camera, you know? The way a person with ADHD thinks, if you give them structure like a 9-5 office job or something like this, its literally torture for them. These are the kind of lessons that make you realize what you’re supposed to be doing.

So it’s nothing to do with any sort of special talent. I really had to develop every single step of the way. I still remember getting this comment, “We really love your enthusiasm for this project, but you should get yourself an editor.” I thought my English was good enough! I didn’t even realize I was having these issues with grammar.

I had a choice to make. I was from Hungary, I had worked in this coffee shop for four years. I had no idea how to interview people. I had no idea about photography at all. I had just bought my first DSLR camera. I’m trying to deal with everyone thinking I was just copying Humans of New York. All of that was going on in my mind, so I could have made a decision at that point to give up. Instead, I took that same comment and used it as a positive thing, and thought “how could I make this better?“. I reached out to a friend who literally proofread every single post, every single day, for three years, for free.


Obviously, what is happening with the Culture Date Festival, and with Guinness is huge. Can you tell me about your work over the festival?

With Culture Date, the whole idea is to go into the community and highlight people. It’s about the culture inside. You can hang banners and invite bands and politicians, you can invite people to get together but it’s not going to have the same value as talking to someone from that community for a while and getting to know that person. So with Tara for example, she tells me her days are not the same anymore. She went viral. People appreciate her more now as opposed to the person serving them chewing gum, or their lotto or whatever. They are faced with someone that they know something personal about.


It’s amazing what a little familiarity can bring out of a person.

I realized how important and how effective it could be when I was working with a lot of nonprofits. I was able to raise awareness through real life stories. With Focus Ireland, within five days, I raised €12,000 in five stories. I’m sure that they have other people who raised more money, but just this simple thing, talking to someone and telling their story. And I enjoy it. When you work with a place like that you really feel like the people working there are in it for the right reasons. I feel that’s  why a lot of people start working with them, you get a lot more out of your time than you invest.


So what are the plans going forward? What do you now want to achieve?

I feel like Humans of Dublin is an outfit that you can put on any organization. I have plans to work with LinkedIn. Their inclusion and diversity team is something that they want to highlight, so all they have to do is introduce me to them, I’ll create the stories and they’ll work themselves out. However, I know there is a bigger picture behind Humans of Dublin, and I’m already in touch working on that. Humans of Dublin is the first digital project that’s going to be placed in the National Archives.

It’s a very slow process, but it’s a huge project. They literally have to create a system around it. It used to be a matter of simply taking printed photographs and putting them into the archive, but as this is digital, they ran into some difficulties. Slow but steady progress.


It must be amazing for the people who have been a part of the project to know they’ve been enshrined in the National Archives.

It’s just a simple conversation that made it happen. Going back to when I was talking about that negative comment about my grammar; all of this, the National Archives and the Culture Date with Dublin 8 festival, all of which would never have happened if I quit. I knew it wasn’t perfect, but I decided to keep working at it. To put in my 10,000 hours, I have no talents in this field whatsoever. I had no other choice. I used to go out every single day and spend around six hours on the streets, and approach at least ten people.

Of those ten people, I’d maybe get two or three stories that went online. I wasn’t making any money during this time, not for at least nine months, despite how much time I put in. So many of the other Humans of… pages have shut down because it’s so much work. It takes up so much time. If you don’t figure out a way to make a living out of it, it won’t last. But I knew I wanted to figure it out, because I didn’t have a plan B.


It’s incredible to see how the project has grown, really taken flight, from such humble beginnings. What advice would you have for people wanting to strike out on their own, with an idea?

Be open to opportunities. Sometimes you have struggles that you’re faced with, and then you have struggles that you choose. Like running a marathon. I feel really lucky. With Humans of Dublin, the puzzle pieces slowly came together, and it became apparent that this is what I want, I am this project.  And it has taken me to amazing places. Because I talked to someone I ended up in Russia. Because I talked to someone, I ended up in an Ayahuasca retreat. Because I talked to someone, I ended up helping in Greece with the first waves of refugees. Because I talked to someone, I went to Amsterdam. All of these opportunities came to me, and I was open to them.

 Words: Adhamh Ó Cáoimh

Images of Peter Varga: Ishmael Claxton

HOD Images – Peter Varga

The Humans of the Liberties exhibition is a collaboration between Culture Date with Dublin 8 and Humans of Dublin and is showing at The Bank at The Digital Hub, 85 James Street, The Digital Hub, Dublin 8. Opening hours are Thursday 9th May 1pm – 9pm, Friday 10th May 11am – 7pm, Saturday 11th May 10am – 7pm, Sunday 12th May 11am – 6pm. Admission is free, no booking required.

Humans Of Dublin is online at Facebook:

Instagram & X (Twitter): @humansofdub


The key to the city. Straight to your inbox. Sign up for our newsletter.


National Museum 2024 – English


The key to the city. Straight to your inbox. Sign up for our newsletter.