After Brandon Stanton lost his stock market trading job, he set out to create an exhaustive catalog of every person in New York, which evolved into Humans of New York (HONY), a project in which Stanton takes pictures of New Yorkers on the street and interviews them. The finished product is a series of photos of people with tales ranging from ex-convicts to aspiring Bollywood stars, and the HONY Facebook page has more than 9 million likes.
But recently, Stanton hasn’t been on the streets of New York City. He’s teamed up with the United Nations to heighten awareness of the Millennium Development Goals — eight goals like halving the extreme poverty rate and ending the spread of HIV, all by the target date of 2015 — which some are saying won’t happen.
Stanton is now taking pictures in places like Erbil, Iraq, Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan and the Democratic Republic of Congo on a world tour with the U.N. to expose the stories of people all over the world.
“It would be rather foolish to claim that these portraits and stories somehow represent ‘the world,’ or humanity as a whole,” Stanton writes on his blog. “The point of the trip is not to “say” anything about the world. But rather to visit some faraway places, and listen to as many people as possible. In addition to telling stories of individuals, we hope this trip may in some way help to inspire a global perspective while bringing awareness to the challenges that we all need to tackle together.”
Like his New York photographs, some subjects are simple and even lighthearted. Like this one of a woman with her daughters and granddaughters in Amman, Jordan.
“I had five daughters,” the woman told Stanton. “And my daughters had five daughters. And every one loves to spend time with Grandma!"
Others, though, are serious. In his first days on the ground in Iraq, Stanton wrote, “I normally go into my conversations with a set of proven questions to ask, that I find will elicit a wide variety of anecdotes from people's lives: happiest moment, saddest moment, things like that. But with people fleeing war, it is absolutely impossible to discuss anything beyond the present moment. Their circumstances are so overpowering, there is absolutely zero room in their minds for any other thoughts. The conversation immediately stalls, because any topic of conversation beyond their present despair seems grossly inappropriate. You realize that without physical security, no other layers of the human experience can exist.”
One family Stanton photographed described to him their last day in Syria before fleeing:
“Our house was next to a checkpoint for the government, so we thought it was safe. There were snipers around, but we thought they knew us. They'd seen us everyday. But one day the electricity got very weak. The television was still working, but the refrigerator and washing machine cut off, so my brother went into the yard to check it. And then we heard a scream. It wasn't exactly a scream, more like an 'Ahhhh!' And I ran outside. And there he was,” Humans of New York’s Facebook post says.
Another refugee woman photographed in Iraq with her children told Stanton, “All they do is cry for home.”
A store merchant tells this story from the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan: “Back in Syria, I sold antiques and Orientals. I had all sorts of things in my shop: glass vases, old stamps, coins from the Roman and Ottoman empire, valuable laces, antique furniture. But they beat me with rifles and knocked out my teeth. Then they burned my store to the ground."
“We’re trying to get to Grandma’s.”
HONY has both critics and admirers.
Gawker writer Daniel D’Addario called HONY’s site “a steady stream of clickbait” where “humans are actually caricatures” and the people in the photographs “are reduced to whatever decontextualized sentence or three (Stanton) chooses to use along with their photo.”
But Daily Dot writer Anastasia Sasewich disagrees. She writes, “We don’t know someone till we’ve walked a mile in their shoes, which is a cliché but a truism, too. By sharing these stories (which are stories in the narrative sense, not the page-length sense), HONY does what novels and music and all other forms of art do, too. They make us feel less alone because they show us that someone else has been there, felt this, done that too. HONY isn’t getting millions of likes and shares because it’s clickbait; it’s getting likes and shares because unlike lots of the other troll-composed, monetized junk on the Internet, it’s giving us something real. It’s giving us a certain kind of mirror, in that we are able to see and experience our own humanity by seeing and experiencing someone else’s.”
Twitter | @amymcdonald89