When I explained what I do with photography and first-person narratives, one of my students told me about this project. Brandon Stanton outlines the project on the website as such:
“Humans of New York began as a photography project in 2010. The initial goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street, and create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants.”
“Somewhere along the way, I began to interview my subjects in addition to photographing them. And alongside their portraits, I’d include quotes and short stories from their lives.”
Taken together, these portraits and captions became the subject of a vibrant blog. HONY now has over twenty million followers on social media, and provides a worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers on the streets of New York City.
The project went viral, and there are now 2 book publications and the project has been extended (with the assistance of the UN) to include over 20 different countries.
Personal stories are published alongside several portraits of the interviewees, usually a full length then some closer shots as Stanton moves in. For those who wish to remain anonymous, Stanton photographs other parts of their bodies.
Since the images on the website are protected, this is a screenshot of typical stories and the extracts that are selected to draw the reader into the story:
The stories themselves are quite personal, and in a video presentation Stanton explains that he only approaches people who are on their own, since when a person is with someone who knows them they tend to clam up. I have also noticed that I can interview people best when they are on their own; they are more at ease and less self-conscious.
He explains his approach, how he’s developed it over time and that it’s not about the words you use but about the energy you project when you approach people and ask to photograph them. He spoke of taking first a full length portrait and then moving in for more close-up shots and then just listening as the person tells their story – sometimes for up to 20 minutes if he feels the person will have something interesting to say.
He stresses the importance of personal stories over any kind of philosophy or credo, since these are what make us individual: “all of our stories are our own” whereas a philosophy can be shared. He give examples of some of the questions he asks people, for example “what is your greatest struggle?” or he asks them to give him some advice and then turns it right back on them, “Forgive people.” “Who in your life have you had the hardest time forgiving?” in such a way, as he puts it he is taking the broad and turning it into the personal.
He speaks of being able to read body language and detect a refusal, or not being able to coax people into telling an interesting story. He also speaks about getting knocked back time after time. In a different video that follows him on a typical shoot, he explains that usually the first couple of photographs set the mood for the day – if he is met with refusals, rudeness or aggression to begin with, then it puts him off, while a very positive experience at the beginning of the day means that he can shrug those things off if they happen later on in the course of shooting.
Unfortunately, the video really only shows his photographic approach, and doesn’t show the interview process, which is to my mind the more important part. How to strike up a rapport with a person in a matter of quite literally seconds. Perhaps this is deliberately not show so as not to reveal trade secrets, but as Stanton himself acknowledges, it has to be there in your personality – you have to exude a kind of self-confidence and maintain the rationale that what you are doing is the right thing to do. This is what I call artistic integrity.
Some of the more intriguing extracts, taken from an article on the Huffington Post website:
“I’m saving up money to go to Brazil so I can find my birth mother.”
“I’m studying law. My dream is to be a judge one day. Too many people in this country are only in prison because they were too poor to defend themselves. When I’m a judge, I’ll look only at the facts, and not at the person.”
(Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo)
“The new recruits had to walk in front.”
(Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon, Vietnam)
What I most appreciate about this work is its humanity. There are no conclusions to be drawn, and no judgements to be made. Stanton’s project cuts across age, gender, ethnic and cultural categories. The stories are deeply personal and since they are related in the first person, the reader feels he is being directly addressed. I’m sure this project has inspired many copycat projects.
In a NYT article, Stanton explains about the need to remain apolitical in his stance:
“Mr. Stanton says that skirting politics helps him focus on his subjects’ everyday lives. “I go back to widening my awareness of the spectrum of human experience,” he said. “The depth and the extent of the tragedy that people go through and still keep going and living and laughing has been really shocking.”” (Jonah Bromwich, Aug. 18, 2014)
The choice of countries (Iraq, South Sudan, DRC, Uganda, Jordanian refugee camp amongst others) he says was quite deliberate, selecting countries with “the most extreme headlines coming out“:
“Those are the places most skewed in people’s heads. The work has a very humanizing effect in places that are misunderstood or feared.”
The project thus aims to challenge stereotypes that are fuelled by media representations. A lot of interest has been garnered since Stanton uses Facebook to post his images, a platform where ordinary people can share images and opinions. Much of the feedback is positive, suggesting that the countries are being viewed in a fresh light. In an interview for the Guardian, Stanton explains that what he has noticed most are the similarities between people:
“I think the similarities I’ve noticed are the aspirations of people. It seems that everywhere I go, people want the same things – security, education, family. It’s just that so many people have no avenues through which to obtain these things,” he said.” (Carla Kweifio-Okai, Friday 5 September, 2014)
Besides the UN-sponsored MDG project, Stanton’s website features a number of other series of marginalized groups, or groups generally denied a voice – federal prison inmates, refugees, Syrian Americans, and probably the hardest ones to read, pediatric cancer.