Humans of New York: Changing perceptions, one click at a time

In a world facing issues ranging from poverty, climate change, racism and more recently, the refugee crisis; its very easy to find individuals or organizations promoting beliefs that aggravate the situation. Such activity is common on social networking sites and the internet in general where stereotypes are promoted, individual differences are propagated and intolerance is bred. In all this apathy and bigotry, there are some who try to bridge the gaps, tell the other side of the story and try to remind us the one common characteristic that we all share, being human. One such individual is Brandon Stanton, who through his artistic and humanitarian effort called ‘Humans of New York’ is trying to do all of the above.

Brandon Stanton, creator of the Humans of New York blog, with his camera February 22, 2013 across the street from Union Square in New York. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA
Brandon Stanton, creator of the Humans of New York blog, with his camera February 22, 2013 across the street from Union Square in New York. Photo: AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA

Brandon runs the well-known and universally acclaimed initiative which has a strong following on platforms such as Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram to name a few. The Facebook page has over 15 million followers, which is almost double the population of New York City (8.5 million). His self described aim is ‘New York City, one story at a time’. Although now with a best-selling book, millions of followers and being social initiative unlike any other, Humans of New York or HONY, had much humbler beginnings. After he lost his job as a bond trader in Chicago in 2010, Brandon decided to take up his life-long dream of becoming a photographer and embarked on a tour of American cities, where he took photos of cityscapes as well as candid portraits.  It was in August 2010 that he arrived at New York but despite his initial decision to only stay for a short while, he found the city ideal for his photography. At first he only took photographs of his subjects but later on, after short conversations with those he photographed, he added quotes and anecdotes. As his blog grew, he took up two unpaid interns to help him in his work and in 2013 he won awards like the People’s Choice award in Best Use of Photography category, the Webby Award and Time magazine placed him in its list of “30 under 30 World Changers”.

Humans of Washinton...
Humans of Washinton…

Although the original aim was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers and plot their photos on a map to create a ‘photo-census’, the project evolved into essentially telling people’s ‘stories’. Stanton took over 6000 pictures in New York, each portraying a different face with a different tale to tell. The subjects included people from various communities and socio-economic backgrounds. Through his photos Brandon managed to gather funds for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, the adoption of a child in Ethiopia and a boy’s lifelong dream of riding a horse.

The only thing better than the pictures themselves are the comments.
The only thing as good as the pictures themselves are the comments.
Sometimes they're better than the pictures...
Sometimes they’re better than the pictures…

The most challenging and perhaps inspiring part of HONY’s campaign started in 2012 when Brandon made a trip to Iran at a time when US-Iran relations were at an all time low. Through his imagery, Brandon was able to convince the average American citizen and others worldwide as they scrolled through their Facebook feeds, that those on the other side of the world which the media and state labelled as ‘radicals’ and ‘oppressed’ were no different than them and were leading similar lives. The success of the trip lead to it being succeeded by another in the summer of 2014 wherein on behalf of the United Nations, Brandon visited 12 countries in 50 days, including Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Ukraine, India, Nepal, Vietnam, and Mexico.

You need a box of tissues to read some stories.
You need a box of tissues to read some stories.

Brandon’s camera lens also landed on Pakistan and Iran this year, where he tried to remove stereotypes through his photographs and the stories they told. He also managed to raise $2m in Pakistan for the fight against bonded labor being led by Syeda Ghulam Fatima who had been shot, electrocuted, and beaten numerous times for her activism.

“After I told my father that I’d made it to Europe, I wanted nothing more than to turn that lie into the truth. I found a smuggler and told him my story. He acted like he cared very much and wanted to help me. He told me that for 1000 Euros, he could get me to a Greek Island. He said: ‘I’m not like the other smugglers. I fear God. I have children of my own. Nothing bad will happen to you.’ I trusted this man. One night he called me and told me to meet him at a garage. He put me in the back of a van with twenty other people. There were tanks of gasoline back there, and we couldn’t breath. People started to scream and vomit. The smuggler pulled out a gun, pointed it at us, and said: ‘If you don’t shut up, I will kill you.’ He took us to a beach, and while he prepared the boat, his partner kept the gun pointed at us. The boat was made of plastic and was only three meters long. When we got on it, everyone panicked and the boat started to sink. Thirteen of the people were too scared to go. But the smuggler said that if we changed our minds, he would keep the money, so seven of us decided to go ahead. The smuggler told us that he would guide us to the island, but after a few hundred meters, he jumped off the boat and swam to shore. He told us to keep going straight. The waves got higher and higher and water began to come in the boat. It was completely black. We could see no land, no lights, only ocean. Then after thirty minutes the motor stopped. I knew we all would die. I was so scared that my thoughts completely stopped. The women started crying because none of them could swim. I lied and told them that I could swim with three people on my back. It started to rain. The boat began to turn in circles. Everyone was so frightened that nobody could speak. But one man kept trying to work on the motor, and after a few minutes it started again. I don’t remember how we reached shore. But I remember I kissed all the earth I could find. I hate the sea now. I hate it so much. I don’t like to swim it. I don’t like to look at it. I hate everything about it.” (Kos, Greece) Photo: Facebook.com/humansofnewyork
“After I told my father that I’d made it to Europe, I wanted nothing more than to turn that lie into the truth. I found a smuggler and told him my story. He acted like he cared very much and wanted to help me. He told me that for 1000 Euros, he could get me to a Greek Island. He said: ‘I’m not like the other smugglers. I fear God. I have children of my own. Nothing bad will happen to you.’ I trusted this man. One night he called me and told me to meet him at a garage. He put me in the back of a van with twenty other people. There were tanks of gasoline back there, and we couldn’t breath. People started to scream and vomit. The smuggler pulled out a gun, pointed it at us, and said: ‘If you don’t shut up, I will kill you.’ He took us to a beach, and while he prepared the boat, his partner kept the gun pointed at us. The boat was made of plastic and was only three meters long. When we got on it, everyone panicked and the boat started to sink. Thirteen of the people were too scared to go. But the smuggler said that if we changed our minds, he would keep the money, so seven of us decided to go ahead. The smuggler told us that he would guide us to the island, but after a few hundred meters, he jumped off the boat and swam to shore. He told us to keep going straight. The waves got higher and higher and water began to come in the boat. It was completely black. We could see no land, no lights, only ocean. Then after thirty minutes the motor stopped. I knew we all would die. I was so scared that my thoughts completely stopped. The women started crying because none of them could swim. I lied and told them that I could swim with three people on my back. It started to rain. The boat began to turn in circles. Everyone was so frightened that nobody could speak. But one man kept trying to work on the motor, and after a few minutes it started again. I don’t remember how we reached shore. But I remember I kissed all the earth I could find. I hate the sea now. I hate it so much. I don’t like to swim it. I don’t like to look at it. I hate everything about it.” (Kos, Greece)
Photo: Facebook.com/humansofnewyork

It is inspiring to see how through photos and words, one man with a passion manages to eliminate prejudices and pre-conceived notions that had existed among people for centuries. Humans of New York aims at making people ignore the inconsequential differences between each other and instead focusing on the much more evident and important commonalities that exist between all of us. Its even more remarkable to see how one man and his Canon EOS 7D are able to resolve conflicts that have existed for so long that those involved have forgotten the reasons behind said disputes, whether its between Israelis and Palestinians, Americans and Iranians or Indians and Pakistanis. Being a Pakistani, I can say that Brandon has done more in the way of eradicating intolerance and promoting humanism in the countries where he visited than most citizens of these countries can say they’ve done. His latest project is regarding the refugees from Syria who are facing harsh opposition from all fronts and Brandon aims to change our perception regarding them so that we look at them not as refugees or Syrians but as humans. For me, HONY has adopted a more of an international approach to its mission over the years and a more suitable acronym would be HOPE or Humans of Planet Earth. Nonetheless Brandon and his initiative appear as a deserving Nobel Peace Prize laureate for 2015.