“Brandon Stanton deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.”
The comments on each of his photos are littered with this and similar sentiments about Pulitzers and other distinctions.
And it’s arguably warranted, especially when just a photo and a caption on his page can bring about scholarships and summer programs, teams of lawyers helping you get to safety, draw fundraising after a natural disaster, or even make the President of the United States relatable.
One of the earliest international forays of Humans of New York started with Iran, and his exploration of the citizens on the other side of that American war. Then he went to Pakistan, where his journeys culminated in his publicizing and recognizing a woman in the fight against bonded labour. After which came the Syrian refugees, and the multi-part stories that left millions willing to pledge their names and pressure for Aya’s entry into the US. Recently, it was the inmates from five different federal prisons across the Northeast—including Manhattan and Brooklyn.
But the appeal of Humans of New York isn’t necessarily stunning photography, although that is an aspect. Rather, it is that Brandon Stanton has achieved the admirable task of presenting these individuals exactly the way he promised —as humans, free of the labels that dominate our daily interactions.
Beginning with the humanization of the ordinary everyday citizens in New York, Stanton showed us the remarkable stories that come from ordinary citizens. But then he went further, making relatable even the demonized: refugees, prisoners, foreigners on the other side of a war. Providing an uncharacteristic accessibility to those we alienate, Brandon has created a platform for creating shared humanity.
As much as it is tempting to purely romanticize and appreciate this accomplishment, it also reveals a dissonance between the way we look at the world and the way we consider HONY stories. Once strangers share their stories with the man behind the camera, there is almost an unspoken obligation to consider complexity, contextualization, and other factors before casting judgements. Is there a validity we give to their stories on this platform that we don’t give the very same people in real life?
None of this reflects poorly on Mr. Stanton; in fact, he’s to be praised highly for his unfailing ability to listen. After all, the stories are only heard because he is there to listen and convey.
But dozens of refugees shared horror stories long before Brandon started a series, and yet it was only then that any merit was given to the circumstances they were fleeing. Prisoners and poverty have been around for a while, but I doubt many were receiving sympathy as “the results of their circumstances” before the pictures.
So many of the individuals commenting reveled in “the side the news doesn’t show you.” But is the blame truly on the outlets we choose as our sources of news, allowing them to feed us their views without question? Why would these collective groups need to be humanized in the first place if it weren’t for our acceptance of the one-sided narrative we were initially presented with?
At the end of the day, Humans Of New York is wonderful, and I am among those who absolutely admire Stanton’s efforts and his work. The other side, however, is that we can’t simply like, share, and comment on sad stories, but then return to the same blissful ignorance that we choose to enjoy. If we regularly extended the same open-mindedness to people as we do their pictures on a Facebook page, there would be a lot less humanizing that needs to be done.