Unless you’ve been living in an underground cave the last few years, you’re probably familiar with Humans of New York (or HONY, as the 15 million online fans say). For years, US street photographer Brandon Stanton has captured intimate portraits of strangers around New York, slowly adding small quotes from his subjects which eventually got longer and longer until the two became inseparable. The poignancy of these short insights into the lives of ordinary people caught the attention of the public, and now, 5 years later, HONY is a certified internet phenomenon – resulting in Stanton even taking his project global, most recently to the Syrian refugees in Europe.
Stanton has done more than merely make street photography accessible to the masses. It says something significant that, particularly in the social media age, people are so moved and connected to the lives of his subjects. In fact, while having a hard copy of his project in book form certainly acts as a type of validation (making the work more “official” and not just another cutesy story found on the internet), I do miss the comments and interactions from the online readers. Seeing people from all over the world comment and respond to the lives of the subjects and engage in wider discussions about what it means to be human is a nice display of empathy and a reminder that the people on your webpage are real. Online, the readers are participants, whereas flicking through the pages in my living room feels more like a spectator sport – but it’s still engaging nonetheless.
The gross and diverse population of a city like New York is quite unfathomable for me to comprehend, living in New Zealand, where it would be harder to find someone you don’t know than someone you do. The beauty of HONY is that it suggests, at best, that everyone has their own story, that everyone has their own beautiful portrait no matter how mundane it may seem to themselves. That said, it’s fascinating to confront the idea of truth (or lack thereof) in many of the works as well. For instance, in one photograph Stanton recounts his first meeting with a homeless man on the street who breaks down crying as he tells, in great detail, of his children being killed in a car accident. When Stanton runs into him a second time, the same man tells, with equal virility as before, that his children are alive and well and living in another city. In this way, it is easy to get cynical about the project and question how many unreliable narrators hide among the thousands of other subjects, but it’s much more romantic to buy into the depiction of the isolated and haunting city life – where so many lives co-exist and yet remain so disconnected from each other.
Despite appearances, Humans of New York is more than just a good coffee table book. Granted, going just by a short blurb it would no doubt put many people off for sounding too cutesy, but in truth it lends itself to a deeper examination of humanity. The portraits aren’t all positive and lovely. They can be raw and harrowing – which is depressing considering that’s already the conclusion when only scraping the surface of these people’s lives. Stanton shows the hopes and dreams of ambitious and bright young kids, the wisdom and regrets of the older generation and most memorable for me, the shock and disorientation felt by those who have seen great change, whether they are new immigrants or someone who has just lost a wife, a child, a home or a job, but must continue on as if nothing has changed. They are coping, not living. The biggest takeaway from HONY for me is best summed up in the famous quote by Scottish author Ian Maclaren, “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”