Francis Kabisoso has mastered the art of talking to strangers. The 22-year-old photographer is easy to talk with but isn’t overly talkative, any nervousness overrun by the calm of someone who knows what he wants.
You’re more likely to know him as Francis Fiction, the name he uses to credit his work online. Most people who have seen his work don’t know it’s a stage name.
“I didn’t put a lot of thought into it. The words just sounded good together,” he said. “I like alliteration. Francis Fiction. Humans of Hamilton.”
Since coming to Hamilton in 2005, Kabisoso has started several creative projects, including ‘Humans of Hamilton’, a blog and Facebook page chronicling the lives of Hamiltonians one photo at a time. The project started out as a little-known Tumblr blog called Fiction 365. When a friend showed him the popular ‘Humans of New York’ Facebook page, Kabisoso liked the idea and ran with it.
He began approaching people he didn’t know and asking to take their photos. He captures them in transitory moments—running errands, sitting on a park bench, taking a stroll with their girlfriend or boyfriend—and captions the photos with their favourite quotes, or if he doesn’t remember, words that resonate with him.
These days he’s trying to get the shot in one take. “You have to do that if they’re busy or walking by,” he told me after taking a snapshot of a friendly woman we passed on James Street S.
Kabisoso has had a passion for the arts for as long as he can remember.
He was born with scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine that compresses it on one side, causing back pain and difficulty breathing with over-exertion.
“I couldn’t really do much physical activity, so I relied on writing and anything artistic that didn’t involve situations where someone could hurt me.”
In high school, Kabisoso got into creative theatre and participated in the Sears Drama Festival. After getting his diploma, he enrolled in Niagara College’s broadcasting program, but found that it didn’t suit his passion for film. He wanted to meet people and travel. Thinking that tourism was his calling, he started taking classes at Mohawk College. That didn’t live up to his expectations either, so he told his parents he would drop out again.
“I trust my instincts,” he said. “When I want to do anything, I don’t go by what my parents or anybody tells me, I just do what feels right for me in my life.”
Kabisoso went out and bought a Canon T3i, the camera he still uses, and started by recording videos of himself.
“I took it to church once and took a couple of photographs, and I really liked it. I decided to create a Facebook page so I could start posting them. That way I didn’t have to send the photos to everybody.”
His ‘Humans of Hamilton’ Facebook page has since garnered a following of more than 800. Earlier this month, he used the platform to launch Human Stories, a documentary series about connections between Hamiltonians.Eager to juggle both projects, Kabisoso paired up with his friend, Kyle Dowie, to start producing segments. They’ve shot three episodes and combined two that were similar in theme.
“Sometimes when I talk to people, I get home and I want to write down something they said, but I can’t really remember it. So I thought I should start to make videos. No one can tell your story better than you can, right?”
At first, Kabisoso was anxious about asking people for interviews, even though he’d been taking photos of strangers. “Rejection sucks,” he said. “Some people say no, but I’ve just learned to not take it personally.”
“When we do interviews, it’s not formal at all. This is the thing I tell everyone—they say, what do you want me to do, how do you want me to stand—and I say, just be.”
“How do you get strangers to open up to you?” I asked.
He chuckled at that. “Smile?”
“I can’t really say what it is that I do – I just talk to them like they’re human, like they’re my friend, and they just kind of open up,” he said.
“You start with just like, how was your day, and just move on. The material we use doesn’t even start from the hour mark, but we talk for an hour, two hours. It’s really, really hard to try to condense that into five minutes each. But I think you get more honesty that way.”
“The thing is,” he said, “People want to be listened to. People at some point in our lives feel like we want to be sort of validated, to know that our lives really matter to someone.”
Kabisoso works on his creative projects in his spare time and says none of his previous jobs had anything to do with photography.
Since last October, he’s been working part-time at Canada Post’s call centre.
“It’s made me that much more compassionate because I’m talking to people all day on the phone and I hear what they’re going through,” he said.
This fall, Kabisoso will be attending Humber College, where he’ll study creative photography.
When people ask him what will become of Humans of Hamilton, he’s at a bit of a loss. He knows he won’t be in Hamilton forever and that passing it off to someone else is probably the best way to go.
“I get scared ‘cause when people message me, they’re like, Francis: don’t ever stop doing this, and I’m like, don’t do this to me.”
For now, he’s still rolling out photos and videos one at a time, having learned more from strangers than he’s learned in class.
“A lot of times I go to Gore Park and there are certain people that are sort of just sitting there. Sometimes I feel like they’re just waiting for someone to talk to them because there’s something on their minds that they want to let out. And so I go there and start a conversation.”
In spite of his body of work, Kabisoso is uncomfortable with the title of ‘artist.’
“People call me that and I don’t really consider myself that at all. The only thing I would call myself is a storyteller. I feel like I will get there sometime but calling me an artist right now—I’m on my way, I’m getting there.”