Medical student on hunt for Newfoundland faces

Published on August 15, 2014

Don’t be alarmed if a man asks to take your portrait next time you’re out and about. A medical student from Stephenville is bringing the “Humans of New York” concept to Newfoundland.

Five weeks ago, David McComiskey created “Faces of Newfoundland” — a website dedicated to capturing the faces and stories of the Newfoundland community.

The concept is simple: photograph 1,000 Newfoundland faces and find out what lies behind them. The page has already attracted huge success. It currently has more than 8,000 followers on Facebook.

McComiskey, who has always had an interest in photography, says he created the page as a means of counterbalancing all the pain and suffering he sees in his studies.

“In med school, you see a lot of suffering and sad emotions,” he said. “I wanted to see emotions covering the full spectrum of experience, not just death, not just sickness, not just chronic illness.”

 “Faces of Newfoundland” is a way to peek into the lives of strangers, share stories, and ultimately bring Newfoundlanders closer together.

“I find we just walk by strangers all day, everyone does. We’re all in our own little worlds with our cellphones, not even looking up,” said McComiskey. “I’m kind of a softie I guess, so I like the idea of creating a connection, bringing people together, making people softer or making people nicer.”

Although McComiskey loves finding faces of joy, he wants his website to capture a vast wealth of human experience.

“I find some of the most interesting stories about people involve some flaw in their character, or some regret they have, or something they’ve overcome in the past,” he says. “I think it’s easier to connect with struggle and loss than it is happiness, because everyone’s got their own problems. To see other people overcoming those problems is encouraging because you know you’re not alone.”

McComiskey started taking portraits when he first began medical school. A self-proclaimed introvert, he was uncomfortable with large crowds at student events, so he started taking pictures as a way of staying on the outskirts.

He says that while speaking with strangers is still a challenge, his passion for the work makes it much easier. He now carries his camera everywhere he goes.

“When you get me with a group of people I’m very shy and awkward. But when I take photos I feel I can hide behind the camera while still feeling really connected to the person.

“When you’re doing something that you love, that supercedes your shyness,” McComiskey said. “It doesn’t take away all the difficulty. It’s still sort of out of my comfort zone, but I think it’s good to be out of your comfort zone as well.”

So far, one of his favourite stories he’s captured is that of a couple from Washington D.C. They met and fell in love 25 years ago, but broke up after only six months. Although they married other people, they kept in touch, always knowing they were right for each other. Twenty-three years later they met up again, and have been happily together ever since.

McComiskey says stories of people getting out of their comfort zones have touched him in a more personal way. He feels particularly connected to the story of the clown who worked with Patch Adams, and the man who impulsively quit his miserable job in advertising to work at Rocket bakery.

One of the biggest differences in doing a project like this in Newfoundland is the population size. Whereas in New York, there is a sense of anonymity associated with the photos, in Newfoundland, if go on the site and you are bound to see someone you know. Many people even tag the subjects in the Facebook comments.

But McComiskey says people are still more than willing to open up and share their personal stories. While “Humans of New York” photographer Brandon Stanton says two out of three people will agree to have their photo taken, McComiskey says that when he asks, nine out of 10 people agree.

“I’ve been blown away by the openness and willingness to share, even in such a small community where they know it is likely people will recognize them,” he said.

“I think it can be a big pro in that it increases the close knit-ness of the community. Also with the outliers, like people from Sudan, this can help bring them into the fold and make Newfoundlanders even more welcoming than they already are.”

McComiskey says that when searching for subjects, he often just follows his instincts.

“When I see people, sometimes I just get this feeling that this is going to be a good person. If you really look at people you can sometimes tell that they want to talk to someone, that they’d want to talk to anyone,” he said.

“I look for people that look like they’ve got something on their mind, because those people usually want to talk to somebody. And that’s something I can do for them. I can take a great picture of them and maybe relieve their need to talk to someone as well.”

Although McComiskey initially tried to model “Humans of New York,” he found “Faces of Newfoundland” taking on a style of its own. McComiskey prefers close-up facial shots to full-body portraits, and is also not afraid to post multiple pictures of the same person and extended quotes.

“If I was getting amazing quotes that were one sentence long, I’d post one sentence quotes. But if I’m getting an amazing story that’s a page long, that’s what I’m going to post. Because ultimately, I want to share what’s amazing and share what people can relate to."