October 3, 2019
Cover of Brandon Stanton’s Book “Humans of New York”. (Photo by Tiffany Corr)
VERO BEACH, Fla. – Today, news operates at an all-consuming and rapid pace. More often than not, what is reported is negative. Which raises the question, can valuable news come in an alternative form? Is there another worthy approach that lends itself credence to the title of journalist? Yes. One that speaks the truth, is loyal to the public, unbiased and provides impactful content to the public? Most definitely.
Humans of New York was created in 2010 by Brandon Stanton. After he lost his job in finance, Stanton turned to his camera and began to capture images. Lots and lots of images. “My photos weren’t exceptional, but I thought they showed a lot of promise,” he wrote in a piece for the Huffington Post. Stanton arrived in New York, wide eyed with a lens at the ready, focused on the busy, interesting, and diverse Manhattanites roaming the streets. What he uncovered were thousands upon thousands of untold stories.
Self taught in both photography and journalism, his approach was unique. It took time to build up the courage to ask strangers to divulge their most intimate stories. “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,” states Brandon on the About page of his website. Trial and error eventually led to better storytelling.
In 2013, Stanton participated in a Redditt discussion and described how he managed to get people to open up. “I’ve found that there’s very little a person won’t disclose. You know why I think that is? Because so much of our life revolves around small talk. And here comes somebody on the street really digging at the marrow of your life, and your experience. I think it’s validating in a deep sort of way.”
Most established brands are many iterations removed from the original, awkward, yet-to-find-an-identity days of infancy. HONY has remained true to photography and storytelling although it has expanded its scope outside the streets of New York.
Pakistan, Kenya, and Vietnam are just some of the more than 20 countries Stanton has traveled to for his work. Though the voices come from foreign lands, the stories stem from familiar territory, transcending any cultural barrier. Tales of parenting, happiness, struggle and fear are relatable topics worldwide and his work links an audience that may otherwise never meet.
The site is simple – a layout of two columns with a series of photos, each accompanied by an individual’s story. There is no producer or public relations manager involved. Similar to a one-man-band, Stanton roams the streets, absorbs his surroundings and uncovers stories walking in plain sight.
Often those stories drip with sadness. One child said, “I love my dad even though he has a new girlfriend and he doesn’t live with us anymore. But mummy says he loves me very much.” Stories of suicide, “I remember he came downstairs and told me that he’d said ‘goodbye’ to the baby. I said: ‘You mean, ‘goodnight,’ not ‘goodbye.’ Then he told me that he loved me. And we both went to bed, I thought. The next morning I found him in the garage.” And stories of heartache, “I don’t know why my mother hated me. She had a sickness that you could not see.”
Stanton created a page titled Humans of New York SERIES, with a focus dedicated to topics from refugees to inmates to pediatric cancer. The broad subjects, familiar to the public, suddenly become more intimate. The issue shrinks from just a headline to a real story involving a real person, with crushing implications. It is harder to look away.
The words of his subjects have been exposed to millions. On Instagram, Humansofny has 9.4 million followers and nearly 5,000 posts. The Facebook page has 18,101,852 likes. Stanton’s ability to uncover the depths of a stranger and relay their story in concise but personable snippets is journalism in blogger form. The public is provided with a message that not only informs but also connects. There is a sincerity in his approach to handle all stories with a certain sense of dignity.
In 2017 the American Psychological Association released a report titled “Stress in America: The State of Our Nation”. Filled with statistics of what Americans agonized over, keeping up with the news turned out to be an unanticipated source of stress. 95 percent of the adults surveyed said they follow the news regularly. But 56 percent claimed that by doing so, it caused them stress.
A theme of HONY is New York City, one story at a time. As a reporter, one of Stantons best qualities is that he does not overwhelm the viewer with information. His site is not stressful. He dishes out content in manageable but meaningful bites. His stories tend to linger and have an impact on the reader.
Telling the anecdotes of ordinary citizens help shape an overall snapshot of the way the nation lives. Stanton shines a light on the struggles people face, their joys and their hardships. By gaining the trust of his subjects he allows millions of people to peak inside a different world, a world opened through his lens and by his ability to simply ask, “What’s your story?”