You have probably seen it all over social media. Someone sharing a picture or a post, saying they have felt inspired. I’ve been guilty of doing the same on a few occasion. A picture of a person with a quote underneath it. What I am referring to here is Humans of New York (HONY), a project created by Brandon Stanton to capture every single person living in New York City. A project that revolves around social media platforms, Stanton photos of New Yorkers with short captions quoting what they’ve told Stanton in interviews. Since its publication in 2010, it has been extremely popular with having over 8.8million Facebook likes alone (D’Addario).
There is no doubt at all that each picture taken of the individuals is very aesthetically pleasing to us. What is there not to like about a short inspirational story to cheer up your day and put your faith back into humanity?
However, it has been pointed out by many that these pictures are merely clickbait for the typical user on social media. Good-looking picture? Tick. Inspirational quote/story? Tick. However that is one of the problems with this project, and that is we expect to see this sort of information on our screens.
Yes, with the Internet, we are now able to able to connect over long distances with anyone and any news. The clichéd saying of “We don’t know someone till we’ve walked a mile in their shoes” (Sasewich) rings true with these photos. We have no idea of what this person has experienced unless we have been there.
Yet, in HONY we are only given a few lines of text to accompany the photo. How is this a true representation of the interview Stanton is having with the individuals if he chooses what to put in the photo at the end. Don’t get me wrong, the way Stanton goes about of showing the problems these people have is very effective; in fact if you want to share something and get it recognised, the Internet is the way forward.
One of the big problems with HONY is the way it represents all races through the lens from one individual, from one city. What needs to be recognised is that one picture alone can for some seem to be a representation of that entire race (Anonymous). This can be a major problem for a city as diverse and multi-cultural as New York and you have to represent everyone honestly. (Anonymous)
This problem was highlighted with a picture of a teacher from the neighbourhood of Harlem, that spoke about the difficulties that the students have in liberating themselves from the poverty trap as there is no “culture of expectation” (‘Outrage: Why I Will No Longer Follow Humans Of New York’). Brianna from “chocolatepompandcircumstance” commented on this to simply raise a point that a lot of the parents in these homes work up to 16 hours a day just to provide a living for their family so they don’t have the time to talk about these issues.
From that comment alone, she was accused of playing the race card. In her blog, she explains what she meant from her comment by saying:
“I let her know that someone who is not dismissive of racism would not use the term “playing the race card,” as it implies that in most cases, racism should be dismissed. I let her know that I was very aware that there are poor people who are white, but I also let her know that to be white and poor and to be black and poor, in this country, are two very different things. I let her know that the latter is actually much worse; black people live in a level of poverty that only one percent of white people are even exposed to. I told her I had links to the statistics and studies if she wanted them.”
And yet for explaining all of this, she was banned from commenting on the HONY. What happened to the idea of free speech? Social media obviously isn’t the best place to have discussions like this; with the amount of trolls, bigots and more online, the chance of having a constructive debate is increasingly unlikely. However for Stanton to ban Brianna speaks volumes about his over protective and controlling nature when it comes to his images and the way he wants his own quote to be attached to be significant in the way we see everything. His truth though goes out the window if you can bring in more views.
But this issue about the quotes is a recurring problem in all of Stantons HONY work. They’re put there to feed and confirm our stereotypical views about the inner lives of everyone in New York. The style of Stantons work, his composition and posing of his subjects is unimaginative, for example if the subject is of someone elderly, you tend to get a much tighter crop in the frame (D’Addario), with all the focus on the face, so that we can see all the wrinkles. Yet with children or any activities, we get a much full frame shot (D’Addario) to demonstrate them them bursting with energy and limitless happiness.
Yet all of this is emotional manipulation to appeal to the lowest common denominator driving mass appeal to achieve maximum commercial success and betrays the concept of art as a form of communication designed to inform, educate and move us. Another example from the project which shows the arm of a black man with tattoos. The quote? (Stanton)
“Can I take your photograph?”
“Nah. I’ve got warrants.”
Whether Stanton purposely meant to do this with his image or not, he is playing into societal perceptions of ethnic minorities by perpetuating the idea that this that all black men with tattoos on their arm have warrants. Stanton’s image both misrepresents this man, his culture and lineage and seeks only to dehumanise him.
It is naturally Stanton’s choice to create and represent the people he meets however he wishes and prior to undertaking this project I might have been fooled by his methods but meeting and interacting with the homeless and research which has opened my mind to the controlling influences of government and media has allowed me to see through his intent.
I equally understand that my own work can be the subject of criticism and I could be accused of misleading the viewer but I have no intention of making a series of images with a mass-market appeal. My goal is to create a fair and accurate representation around a person’s identity and although I understand that this is my truth I feel it is a far better portrayal of homeless life.
Stanton regularly includes a picture of the homeless from New York on the HONY page and his stories can inspire but what does it do for us at all? Nothing, it simply becomes another piece of social media that requires our attention before we move onto the next. Again, I will admit that this is something that I have been guilty of in the past and have every intent of correcting with this project. Social media is having a profound influence on our everyday perceptions and is guilty of producing mass delusion. We need to change the way we see these images, videos and question the digital content we are fed. In regards to the homeless this has become personal as we as need to view them as human beings rather than an inconvenience and we need to actually engage with them on a personal level to learn the true story.
At the end of the day, I understand where Stanton is coming from with this project. It does give us an insight into the lives of those we will pass by on a daily basis. He isn’t the first to do this, with photograhers such as Diane Arbus having done a series on the “freaks” of society; Stanton just does it on the whole public. And there’s no denying that this project has brought a lot of good to various communities. Stanton has just been able to master the digital technology within photography today for his own needs. I like the project for the good it does not only for the subject but everyone else.
However, to sum up things, there are two things I have an issue with HONY:
- The issue with censorship. Stanton himself has said that he has never banned someone from his site, but rather it has been his moderators if they feel the commenter is “attacking the subject.” There are times where this needed due to Internet trolls saying the wrong things. However it is another when comments are deleted when trying to suggest an alternative though, such as in Brianna’s case. If a photographer can’t accept open critique on his site (even though he says he want’s the site to be clean and welcoming) (Golembewski) then why bother having the comments section in the first place?
- The enforcement of stereotypes. Its impossible to say whether it is done or purpose or by accident, but the way in which the photo is taken should not be at all be enforced by his comments/quotes. Doing this only reinforces people’s perceptions of a whole group of individuals. This also ties into the fact of how the photo portrays someone in the wrong light and emits the wrong emotions.
These are just my opinions on the subject and I know others will have a different view compared to what I have. However, there are deeper issues with HONY that shouldn’t be swept aside and need to be addressed.
‘Outrage: Why I Will No Longer Follow Humans Of New York’. Chocolate, Pomp, and Circumstance 2014. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.
Anonymous, Anonymous. ‘This Is Why I Hate Humans Of New York (And You Should, Too)’. Thought Catalog 2014. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.
D’Addario, Daniel. ‘The Problem With Humans Of New York’. Gawker 2014. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.
Sasewich, Anastasia. ”Humans Of New York’ Isn’t Clickbait—It’s Why The Internet Exists’. The Daily Dot. N.p., 2014. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.
Smyth, Melissa. ‘On Sentimentality: A Critique Of Humans Of New York’. Warscapes. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.
Golembewski, Vanessa. ‘NYC’s Favorite Blogger Takes Down Internet Trolls With An Amazing Open Letter’. Refinery29. N.p., 2014. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.
‘Why I Hate Humans Of New York’. 2014. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.
Stanton, Brian. 2014. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.