Humans of New York: a visual revolution
It started out as a simple idea: Brandon Stanton would take 10,000 portraits of New Yorkers in the summer of 2010 and create a photomap of the city. He soon started asking them to tell him something about themselves, and he included a quote from their conversation alongside their portrait as he posted them on his blog. The project ballooned from there into the worldwide phenomenon called the Humans of New York (or HONY for short).
Brandon Stanton with his camera
The project has now far surpassed its initial goal of 10,000 portraits. It has over 15.6 followers on Facebook and around 4 million on Instagram. It has a frequently visited website and was published into a #1 New York Times Bestselling book.
HONY has become a big part of American culture, both online and off. It’s a rare day when I do not see a HONY picture, old or recent, on my Facebook newsfeed. They show me a glimpse into the lives of average Americans, literally caught on the street of our biggest city and asked to speak about something interesting they’ve done, seen, or thought about. Some of the photos are gut-wrenching, others are simply sweet. Some remind you of the goodness of humanity and the United States amongst the depressing news stories. But whenever I take the time to read and look at them, I feel like a better and wiser person for having learned that persons’ story.
“I can take your immune system and transplant it into a mouse that I’ve genetically engineered to have no immune system of it’s own, so that I can model the genetics of your immune system and find immunoregulatory defects that will determine how you are going to respond to the cellular therapy needed to treat your disease.”
HONY has also been appropriated and parodied by a number of other communities and cities. There is a “Humans of —” for nearly every big city in the U.S. (notable ones include San Francisco, Portland, Washington, DC, and San Antonio). High schools and colleges, companies, neighborhoods, even animals have “Humans of —“ Facebook pages. It has made it more normal than creepy to ask a random person if you can take a picture of them in order to share their story. The blogs eventually spread beyond our borders, and there are now photo portraits from the streets of India, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Sydney, and beyond.
“I’m glad I had a daughter. Ever since my grandmother died, I’ve needed the female energy in my life. It’s good energy. I mean, when things go wrong, another man can tell you that everything is going to be OK. But not like a woman can.”
“When I told my mom that I was going to rehab, she was about to catch a flight to her 40th High School Reunion. I told her: ‘I guess you won’t be bragging about me to your friends.’ She said: ‘Actually, I’ve never been prouder of you.’”
As the project grew, so did Stanton’s reach. He decided to move to different locations to take his photos. In December 2013, he spent two weeks creating a similar portrait album in Iran. In partnership with the United Nations, he went on a 50-day “World Tour” to 12 countries: Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, South Sudan, Ukraine, India, Nepal, Vietnam, and Mexico. He spent the last summer in Pakistan as well as in Europe to document the Refugee Crisis.
“After one month, I arrived in Austria. The first day I was there, I walked into a bakery and met a man named Fritz Hummel. He told me that forty years ago he had visited Syria and he’d been treated well. So he gave me clothes, food, everything. He became like a father to me. He took me to the Rotary Club and introduced me to the entire group. He told them my story and asked: ‘How can we help him?’ I found a church, and they gave me a place to live. Right away I committed myself to learning the language. I practiced German for 17 hours a day. I read children’s stories all day long. I watched television. I tried to meet as many Austrians as possible. After seven months, it was time to meet with a judge to determine my status. I could speak so well at this point, that I asked the judge if we could conduct the interview in German. He couldn’t believe it. He was so impressed that I’d already learned German, that he interviewed me for only ten minutes. Then he pointed at my Syrian ID card and said: ‘Muhammad, you will never need this again. You are now an Austrian!’” (Kos, Greece)
His photos have now not only opened up the mysterious Big Apple to the rest of the U.S., they have opened up the world, including some of the most misunderstood and underrepresented regions, to Americans and beyond. His photos and conversations have sparked an interest in the individual story; get to know a city or a country or a region through its’ people, not its’ stereotypes, news stories, and politics.
“She doesn’t speak up for herself, so I’m afraid if someone harms her she wouldn’t tell me. I don’t learn about things that happen to her until they are reflected in her behavior at home. Recently I found her washing the dishes, and I asked her where she learned to do that. She told me: ‘When I visit my friend’s house, I do the dishes all the time.’”
It is truly a visual revolution, and one we can all support, learn from, and be a part of.
“There is no security in Baghdad. We lived in constant fear. We started receiving text messages one day. They said: ‘Give us money, or we will burn down your house. If you tell the police, we will kill you.’ We had nobody to turn to. We are poor people. We have no powerful friends. We don’t know anyone in the government. The text messages continued every day. We were so afraid that we could not sleep. We had no money to give them. We could barely afford to feed ourselves. So we said to ourselves: ‘Maybe they are lying. Maybe they will do nothing.’ Then one night we woke up and our house was on fire. We barely escaped with the children. The next day we received a text message. It said: ‘Give us money, or this time you will die.’ I replied that we’d pay them soon. We sold everything we owned, and we left. We thought we’d rather die in a plastic boat than die there.” (Lesvos, Greece)
“What’s your greatest struggle right now?” “No struggles.”
“In my heart of hearts, I wanted to do the right thing, but selling drugs was easy. Everyone was doing it. I mean, I’m not using that as an excuse, I made my own decisions. But I grew up around these Robin Hood figures who would sell drugs, then buy supplies for kids who were going back to school, or pay rent for an old woman who was about to get evicted. All my friends were doing it. It almost seemed fashionable. I never felt proud of it. I always thought I’d transition to a job with the Transit Authority, or a job like this– something I’d feel good about, but instead I transitioned to jail. I did six years. When I got out, it was tempting to go back to the easy money, because everyone around me was still doing it, and I couldn’t get a job. But luckily I found an agency that helps ex-cons, because there aren’t many companies looking to give people a second chance. I’ve had this job for a few years now. You know what product I’m selling now? Myself. Everyone around here is my client. Times Square is a drug to these people. And I’m picking up all the trash so that they can have the full Times Square experience.”
“I worry about the day they start to want things that I can’t afford.” (Shaqlawa, Iraq)
“I had a child when I was sixteen. I got kicked out of high school because of all the absences. My family and community pretty much wrote me off. But right away I got a job at a sporting goods store. Soon I was able to get a job as a receptionist at a tax company, and they gave me enough responsibilities that I learned how to do taxes. Eventually I learned enough to become an associate. Then I got offered a job at a smaller company, and even though it was a pay cut, they offered me responsibility over all the books — accounts payable, accounts receivable, everything. It was less money but I wanted that experience so I took the risk. And I’m so glad I did, because six months later, the controller of that company left and I was given that position. They told me they couldn’t officially call me the controller because I didn’t have a college degree. So I finished my degree 5 months ago — just to make it official! So after having a child at sixteen, I made it all the way to controller of a company, without even having a college degree. Can you believe that? Honestly, I’ve been waiting to tell that story so long that I told it to a customer service representative on the phone last week. She was nice about it and pretended to care.”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“A doctor and a mommy.”
“When we graduate, my friend and I want to start an organization to teach people in rural areas how to read. I was volunteering at a clinic last year, and I saw a child die of Cholera because the mother couldn’t remember the prescription instructions.”
(Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo)
All pictures and text from the Humans of New York Archive