Think of a street photographer. Unless you have an actual background in photography, you are most likely to have thought of Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind the Humans of New York project. The idea is simple: he walks around the streets of New York, interviews strangers, and uploads a picture of them with a caption completely different from what we normally see on Facebook. Instead of typing a bubbly update of our day like “drinking wine with my best friend makes my day :)”, he reveals an intimate secret of the person, commonly related to a disease, a loss, or a failure.
Due to the success of the project—it has produced 18 million fans and two best-sellers—Stanton decided to create a documentary series for the new Facebook platform, Facebook Watch. The idea was similar to his portraiture. Stanton interviewed close to 1200 people of all ages and walks of life, and posted their interviews to Facebook. The documentary is divided into 13 episodes, each of which deals with a specific topic like time, purpose, and forgiveness. Stanton took four years to film the project, which he advertises as “New York City, one story at a time.”
What is it that makes HoNY so engaging? Loneliness, I thought initially. Crowded streets in overpopulated cities can make the sensation of not having a shoulder to cry on much more daunting. What do we do when we feel underappreciated and anxious about the future in the 21st century? We log in to social media. Then we encounter a HoNY video in which a man painfully admits he pays money “for a phone that barely ever rings,” and it is not that we feel better, but realize we are not alone in feeling lonely. Sometimes this realization makes us cry; sometimes it gives us the strength to continue.
Using the pain of others to get more likes on Facebook seems like a selfish, heartless thing to do. But if viewers perceived HoNY this way, the series would likely not have more than half a million viewers.
Stanton says that, when he does interviews, he tries to “unpeel the layers of someone.” But he tries to do it in such a way that he respects the stranger sitting on the sidewalk drinking a beer; the viewer ought not to feel pity, but rather a connection to him.
“It seemed like a stupid idea, just taking pictures of people on the street,” Branton said for a New York Times interview. “But there’s a comfort, an affirmation, a validation in being exposed to people with similar problems.”
“Ahhhh look at all the lonely people….where do they all come from…look at all the lonely people…where do they all belong…I know your pain,” commented Liliana Méndez on the “Mission” episode. Most of the comments share the same “I know your pain” tone. Thus these HoNY videos create a network of dark feelings-validation.
But it still feels shameful to consume—or record—others’ suffering just to validate our feelings, especially with the knowledge that our validation will not reach the interviewees. Perhaps this is why hundreds of HoNY fans have engaged, over the course of multiple fundraisers, to help some of those strangers facing poverty or disease. Stanton has raised $2.3 million to help brick workers in Pakistan and $4 million for pediatric cancer research, having organized these fundraisers after posting images of people in need.
Stanton says that fans “follow the stories of the people on the streets of New York, and they give feedback through their comments, and it’s a very positive and warm community.”
We can see this warmth in the top comments of every episode and picture. Stanton’s stories move people, and the people want to help. Fans donate money, tag their friends, quote the interviewees, and make fan art out of their images. But using a crying-face reaction on Facebook will not solve the problems most interviewees face: homelessness, drug addiction, poverty, racial discrimination.
Stanton says the most impactful stories are those linked to really strong feelings of happiness or sadness, but the most common ones in the HoNY series are sad ones. One episode about Home starts and ends with the stories of homeless people, those who feel alienated in their homes, and others who have lost something important within the home. Some of this suffering is the cause of human relationships, but much of it has to do with social crises like housing segregation and discrimination.
There have not been fundraisers to combat these problems. Sometimes HoNY fans will donate to a certain person, family, or school, but the beneficiaries of Stanton’s work are, essentially, isolated cases. We cannot blame the series and portraits for this, but fans’ reactions do have to do with the way the stories are presented. Victor Cunningham, in an article for the New Yorker, explains that “Stanton’s all-encompassing title implies a vague, flattening humanism, too quick to forget the barriers erected—even here, and now, in New York—against real equality.”
We do not see a fundraiser campaign to create a public policy that helps homeless people because everyone (including Stanton and the viewers) focuses particular stories that conjure up specific, relatable feelings. This makes it seem as if a particular problem, like homelessness or addition, is personal, and not social.
But Stanton claims what he is doing is a positive, as it still gives people a way to connect with strangers. He attempts to remain apolitical while covering individuals whose plights often have political causes.
“I just want to work hard and let the work speak for itself. I try not to form overarching philosophies about what what HoNY is about, what is it contributing to the world, what’s the meaning behind the work,” said Stanton for a Time interview. “Why am I doing it? I’m doing it because I love it, and other people seem to enjoy it, and I want to get better at it. If there’s meaning in the work, let that come out organically.”
The problem with Stanton’s perspective is that social issues are not going to resolve “organically,” there has to be pressure from the population, from a big portion of it, let’s say 18 million people’s worth. Is it Stanton’s or his fans’ duty to address these problems? Maybe not, but for a project as profitable and relatable as HoNY, there exists a capacity to help ensure that fewer people in New York City face devastating social realities, and, perhaps, help ensure that fewer people feel the way we do when we look to HoNY for comfort.