Celebrating the People on the Street Part 1

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Humans of New York

“I’m always looking for something that, that person has told me that nobody else has told me. It is normally not an opinion, and it is normally not a philosophy. It’s almost always a story. Because we all share similar philosophies, we all share similar opinions on a lot of different issues, but all of our stories are our own.”

                                                                                              –  Brandon Stanton

Most likely you have seen or heard about Humans of New York (HONY) at some point over the last couple of years. It began as an idea of a map of New York cataloguing each neighbourhood by the people inhabiting it. The project soon grew and has turned into a sensation. Amateur photographer Brandon Stanton came to New York City from Chicago after he lost his job as a trader and decided to start to take photographs of people in the street. He started working on the project in 2010 and soon strayed from his original plan of mapping the city. “As it went on it became much more about picking a random person off the street, no matter where they happen to be and celebrating them on a stage,” Stanton explained. He started to include quotes and short stories with the photographs providing a narrative for each photograph. Since then HONY has grown into a blog with over 16 million followers on social media and it was recently released as a book. Stanton’s portraits provide the viewers with a unique insight into the daily lives and struggles of ordinary people in the streets of New York.

During a Ted Talk he held at Columbia University, Stanton said he had noticed a tendency within the media to focus exclusively on the extremes in society, while ignoring the everyday lives of people. The media is filled with stories about violence, sex, danger, conflict, and puppies because those are the good stories that people want to hear about. The extremes is what keeps the media in business. This leads to a perception of reality that was very different from what Stanton experienced on the street. “It’s not that bad things don’t happen”, he elaborated. “But because the media searches for these bad things and amplifies them they don’t happen nearly as often as we imagine.” Instead, Stanton chooses to focus his attention on normal people, living normal lives and celebrates the man on the street. His fascination for the seemingly mundane caught on. “One of the greatest compliment is when people say `oh man, you photograph things that people walk past every single day and don’t notice, but somehow you photograph them and make them beautiful´. So much that walks by me inspires me”.  Based on the success of the blog there is a definite appreciation for Stanton’s work. It is a breath of fresh air to shift the focus away from the extremes of the world – the crimes, the fundamentalism, the Kardashians – over to the “ordinary”. And as it turns out there is plenty of joy, heartbreak, and drama in the lives of the people you pass on the street everyday. The “ordinary” and “normal” becomes, a mosaic of unique and important stories in their own right.   

What Brandon Stanton does everyday – walking up to strangers in the street, taking their picture and asking questions about their lives – is a very brave thing to spend your life doing. It is something that many of us would consider impossible! During a talk at the University College Dublin he gave some insights into how he goes about approaching people. He says that getting people to say ‘yes’ to a Human’s of New York picture is all about: ‘taking the atmosphere of fear and strangeness and uncomfortableness and turning that into an atmosphere of intimacy where people feel comfortable to disclose [information] in a very short amount of time’

He always approaches people from the front, so as to not scare them or make than uncomfortable and he begins by asking them if he can take a photo and explains what Humans of New York is and how it works. If they say yes, he starts by taking a full body shot as it is less intimate. Then he begins with the interview, often crouching down, or sitting on the ground with people – he asks a very broad question to start with and then tries to find the story in their answer. For example: If he asks ‘Give me one piece of advice’ and they say ‘be optimistic’ he may ask ‘tell me about a time in your life when you had trouble being optimistic’. Normally, such stories comes with very strong emotions attached which Stanton also tries to understand as emotions can tell you a lot about a person. It could be argued that getting interviews has become a lot easier for Brandon over the last couple of years as he, his blog and his book have become extremely popular.

The original HONY – stopping people on the streets of New York – has expanded into other areas. Little Humans is a book created with all of Stanton’s favourite pictures of children from his blog. He has also taken pictures and conducted interviews in nearly 20 different countries including Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, offering insights into the people and cultures of the countries. Recently, Stanton has gone into prisons around New York and asked questions of the inmates and collected their stories, which is a window into a whole other world, rarely seen by the public.

One of Stanton’s most well known projects began when he asked a young boy named Vidal who influenced him the most, to which Vidal replied, his headteacher, Mrs Lopez. Stanton helped run a campaign to enable class trips to Harvard for a decade, to allow the students to see that everyone can make it to college and do anything with their lives. Stanton also was invited to the Oval Office to meet Barack Obama with Vidal and Mrs Lopez. He asked the President of the United States difficult questions such as ‘When is the time you felt the most broken’.

Whether it’s an inmate, a refugee, a person on the street or even president Obama, Stanton is able to see the person behind the choices and the situation and convey that beautifully to his audience. Everybody has a story – big or small events that make their life difficult or great. The strength of his work is his ability to capture the diversity that exists out there and celebrate it. Everybody is included, no matter their age, race, gender or life situation.  

Despite all the praise of Stanton’s blog, there have also been some objections to his work. This criticism points out that some of Stanton’s portraits fulfill stereotypes. Rather than giving a diverse and fresh impression of the man in the street, Stanton’s photos become caricatures. They all feel the same somehow and are all reduced to the one sentence or story they are given on the blog. Older people are full of words of wisdom, young children wearing funny outfits to provide comic relief, rich white men tell the viewers to follow their dreams and the less fortunate explain the struggles in their lives. Stanton himself has admitted that if there is a pattern to his work it would probably be children and old people with all other kinds of people in between. I question how much this really matters in the end. Even if the humans of New York are merely reduced to a few simple sentences, it still offers an insight into the lives of everyday people. It can be good to be reminded every now and then – in this world of extremes – of the normal people out there living normal lives.

By Nora Fiskaa Ljostad (embrACE) & Olivia Hobden (Credo)

This article is a collaboration with embrACE the magazine for the International Faculty Association for the faculty of Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC). You can pick up a printed version of this article (and many more) from the outside the ACE offices in M7 and around campus.

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