December 14, 2015

Humans of New York

Dashielle Vawter

 

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“I’m trying to find the thing that motivates me to get me out of bed every morning. Basketball makes me come to the park every day and work hard. Now I just need to find the thing that makes me work hard on everything else. I want to get my grades up to a 4.0. Now that I’m talking to you, I think my main motivation is going to be my mom. Her dream is to have a house where we all live on different floors. I’m not sure about that idea. But I do want to get her a house.”

Humans of New York (HONY) creator Brandon Stanton captures the images and stories of people on the streets of New York. It’s amazing that such a simple project could have garnered so much attention and praise so quickly- and yet given what seems to be a growing desire for authenticity and realness perhaps it’s not surprising at all. Like most art there is no commentary or explanation for any of what Stanton posts, just the image and what the subject chose to share. The neutrality with which the images and stories are presented leaves viewers in the position to interact and view the stories through their own sense of understanding. As I read through the comments I was touched by the overwhelming amount of empathy I saw.

Most of what people share is vulnerable and authentic. There are stories of failed attempts, things not going the way someone hoped they would, aspirations, some happy endings but with the winding unexpected path it took to get there; some glimpse into what created the person in the moment we get to bear witness to. I believe it is this willingness to share something true, that may or may not be pretty, that elicits people’s empathy towards the subjects and the wild popularity of the project. Undramatized stories of people’s lives give us something realistic to compare ourselves to and an actual context within which to understand our own struggles. In a way, it makes us feel like we’re not alone.

One might think that after over 5000 photographs viewership would be waning, people perhaps growing weary of the format or the novelty having worn off- but that’s not the case. Stanton has over 4.6 million followers on Instagram and almost 17 million followers on Facebook. Each image I looked at today had over 100,000 likes. I’m not saying this because I want to demonstrate Stanton and HONY’s social media success- but because I think it also says something meaningful about the moment we’re in historically; a moment in which people are deeply interested in the real struggles of other people. While reality television shows more and more present a highly curated, often formulated, version of reality HONY is offering something more akin to what I think people would like to see in reality themed media and programs-unadorned reality.

And in spite of the fact that some of the stories are heart breaking I find myself uplifted looking through the photos. There is an intimate quality to what he is able to capture both in the images and in what his subjects decide to share with us. Each story is deeply compelling.

The HONY online archive houses over 5000 portraits and stories of ordinary people. There are a few reasons why I think you should look through them if you haven’t already:

  1. Stanton helps us see the art and beauty already inherent in life. Let’s be clear- the photos are great and the stories are compelling: but why? Stanton isn’t getting wildly creative with the camera- it is the story itself and how it comes out that seems to capture people’s hearts. He is merely creating a context for people to be able to see that life is beautiful already, as it is, unadorned, in all it’s vulnerable, beautiful, loving, angry, aspirational, faces.
  2. It’s humanizing. Modern life can be dehumanizing but these stories give us access to ordinary people and what lies beneath their skin color, dress, job, expression, etc. Put another way, these images challenge stereotypes and help us see into the variety of experiences behind exteriors that we either don’t have direct experience with, look the same to us, or are even challenging for us.
  3. It feeds connection and community. There are now also multiple stories of people mobilizing around particularly heart-wrenching or inspiring stories to help a person find a job or a school raise money for an important program. As anonymous people on the street step into the frame and become real it seems viewers are also drawn out of the disconnection and anonymity and into the act of connection. It is also  changing the way some people see others on the street.
  4. Being seen and telling our own story is an act of healing. We can’t heal everyone’s life- but there is healing and dignity in getting to tell our story and have it heard- by a lot of people. In the past stories of the down and out, or of ordinary people, were not given air time. Being seen is important, and so many people have been in some way deeply seen through this forum.
  5. Welcome to real life. It is, after all, a city (world) comprised entirely of such stories. Not every story is heartbreaking or deep (though many are), and not a single one is the same. That the stories are all different in a way destroys the idea of a common man, while simultaneously validating the common man by placing everyone equally on the same stage. That we share so much is as clear as that we are so different. The stories are stories about New York and about people, but they are also about life , about things that are real.

Seen on their own these glimpses suggest a simple and honest beauty inherent in humanity. Perhaps while looking through the pictures we’ll find bits of other people’s stories that match our own. Perhaps we feel a deeper sense of acceptance for all the different ways that a human life can look. Perhaps we see more beauty in ourselves by virtue of witnessing the beautiful humanity of others

“We started out just hooking up but then it got serious and that was weird so we stopped dating for awhile, but then we realized it’s OK so we started dating again and now it’s great. I hope that doesn’t sound bad. That sounded bad. I mean, it was the correct information but I presented it in the wrong way. This is weird. I look like a dick. Ask him a question now.”

“We started out just hooking up but then it got serious and that was weird so we stopped dating for awhile, but then we realized it’s OK so we started dating again and now it’s great. I hope that doesn’t sound bad. That sounded bad. I mean, it was the correct information but I presented it in the wrong way. This is weird. I look like a dick. Ask him a question now.”

Our stories are beautiful. While HONY stories vary from funny to heart-breaking, there is something humbling about flipping open the book of a person’s life and having them read a page out of it to us—sharing something vulnerable, embarrassing, beautiful, confusing, something that we may know well or something that we’ve never been exposed to before.

Each glimpse into a person’s life alludes to an entire lifetime of experience that permeates their expression, clothing, words and posture. These people are real, and I think in the end that is what is so beautiful and satisfying about the project.

Taken together these stories weave an even richer fabric of what it means to be human at this moment in history, and perhaps even what it means to be human at all. Rather than magazine images and airbrushing we get to see what is real. That is something we can relate to, something that we can find our own story in.

If you haven’t perused his images yet you’re in for a treat.

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“We met because of a wrong number. But we ended up speaking for a few minutes, and at the end of our conversation, he asked if he could call again. Soon he was calling me every day. It never felt romantic. I never felt that he had bad intentions. It just felt like he needed someone to talk to. He would tell me every little detail about his day. We’d talk for hours. Those phone calls were the highlight of my days. I was a refugee too. I was also lonely. So I’d sit in my room and wait for the phone to ring. Eventually we met in person. But I’m seven years older than him. I never once expected him to mention marriage. But then one day he asked if he could come speak to my family.”

“We met because of a wrong number. But we ended up speaking for a few minutes, and at the end of our conversation, he asked if he could call again. Soon he was calling me every day. It never felt romantic. I never felt that he had bad intentions. It just felt like he needed someone to talk to. He would tell me every little detail about his day. We’d talk for hours. Those phone calls were the highlight of my days. I was a refugee too. I was also lonely. So I’d sit in my room and wait for the phone to ring. Eventually we met in person. But I’m seven years older than him. I never once expected him to mention marriage. But then one day he asked if he could come speak to my family.”

About Dashielle Vawter

I’m a coach, lover, writer, singer, experimenter, dancer and adventurer. Here's to our beautiful lives together <3

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