Sunday, March 23, 2014

Humans of New York: Boundless Community

How a photoblog documenting the Big Apple and its inhabitants became a social media and publishing phenomenon.  ♦ 
Twenty-nine-year-old Brandon Stanton is the brain and heart behind Humans of New York (HONY), a storytelling photo series through which he documents the unique human experience each day. Stanton began HONY in 2010 after he lost his job as a bond trader in Chicago and moved to New York with the will to catalogue its inhabitants through photo. Initially, he planned to collect 10,000 photographs and post them on an interactive online map, but his project quickly evolved beyond that. After about a year, Stanton started adding captions to the pictures he uploaded. He found that many of his subjects were willing to talk to him, and he realized that these conversations were even more valuable than the photographs.
       HONY is a creative, emotionally-honest photo phenomenon that has sparked hundreds of spinoffs worldwide. It began humbly with Stanton following his passion for photography and sharing it through Facebook. In an article in the Huffington Post in which he shares his Facebook story, Stanton explains how HONY grew out of social media. After losing his job in July of 2010, he traveled to various cities taking pictures and sharing them through Facebook albums for his friends and family. In his journey, he realized that those paying attention were most receptive to his photographs of people. So, when he arrived in New York in August, the city’s people were his focus. He spent the next few weeks adding to his multiple “Humans of New York” Facebook albums. Inspired, Stanton moved to New York permanently to take photographs, soon cataloging thousands online, but at first gathering little recognition. Eventually, he created a Humans of New York Facebook Page and moved his photographs there from his personal profile. Support for his project grew slowly as he improved his content with storytelling captions and proved himself reliable by consistently uploading new photographs every day. Today, the page has over three million likes.
       Stanton posts photographs not only to the HONY Facebook Page but also to his blog, Twitter, and Instagram. HONY thus allows for an interactive experience because of its expansive digital identity through multiple social media sites; the project promotes collaborative writing as people comment on photographs in response to descriptive captions, putting a spotlight on the lives of real New Yorkers and sharing their words in a place where a boundless community can participate in the conversation. Depending on the nature of the story, some captions inspire conversation and others debate, bringing together voices that wouldn’t otherwise intersect.
       Stanton’s blog is sustained by social media but rooted in his willingness to approach strangers. In an interview with CNN last October, Stanton spoke about the importance of giving off a natural and genuine energy in talking to people. His boldness—his bravery, even—fosters insight into what we all wonder at some point while wandering in crowds: What’s his story? What is she thinking? Is that person happy? His blog digs at these questions through a population of ever-diverse subjects: hard-working dads, starving artists, activists, loving couples, college students, toddlers “in microfashion,” and others. His Featured Portraits page offers a selection of particularly compelling photographs that, when coupled with even the simplest caption, can capture the story of a moment in time or a life.

_________________________________ “When my husband was dying, I said: 'Moe, how am I supposed to live without you?’ He told me: ‘Take the love you have for me and spread it around.'” __________________________________

       As a twenty-two-year-old Ohioan who has only ventured to the coveted New York City on high school orchestra trips, seeing and reading about real New Yorkers is fantastic for two reasons: One, the New Yorker is demystified as I find out that problems plaguing the Big Apple look a lot like those we have in Ohio, and two, despite my will to work like a machine, I see that I am only human. Stanton uplifts the human experience in sharing his photographs and conversations. He clarifies people who are misunderstood and unheard, and in doing so he breaks the silence; he celebrates the unique by giving individuality a digital home. In this way, a woman doing a project on women who creatively wear the hijab enters the same space as a man studying atomic processes to make more efficient solar cells.
       New York City works well for his project because of high pedestrian activity and the developed public transportation system; people are everywhere. But humans in other places would capture the spirit of the project, too. In fact, in 2012, Stanton traveled to Iran. His blog has an Iran Page devoted to the photographs and stories he collected there, a compilation that uplifts the Iranian culture and works to debunk the presuppositions Americans might have regarding the people; he speaks to this effort in this section of his blog, urging that there is a difference between a people’s government and the people under that government. 
       With millions of people watching, Stanton also takes opportunities to promote good causes through HONY. Recently he used the site to tell the adoption story of an abused dog named Phyllis, linking the story to Susie’s Senior Dogs, a group which works to match older dogs in great need with loving owners.
      HONY’s presence through social media is powerful. It has engendered a rich digital storytelling community that is both fueled and sustained by humans and their context. The project is for the curious; the project is for the good. And the project continues and grows. Last October, St. Martin’s Press published the Humans of New York book, containing 400 of the photoblog’s best portraits; it is a #1 New York Times Bestseller. In December, Time put Stanton on its list “30 Under 30 World Changers.” And next year, Stanton will publish a children’s book called Little Humans.

  • About the Author
    Holly Jeric is a senior English Education student at Miami University. She is currently seeking a teaching position, but her plan in the interim most definitely involves watching old movies, trying out new recipes, and rereading the books she already loves.

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