The Importance of ‘Humans of New York’

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.” – C.S. Lewis

Tumblr generally represents one of the darkest corners of the Internet. Like the comments section of YouTube, websurfers are advised to avoid reading it too much so that they don’t completely lose faith in humanity.*

One exception is Humans of New York.

Humans of New York is an award-winning photoblog and accompanying book created a few years ago by Brandon Stanton. It features photos of people that he meets around New York City, usually accompanied by a quote or a bit of a conversation Stanton had with the subject. Occasionally, it simply features a brief description or anecdote from the encounter.

The purpose of Humans of New York, or HONY, is to catalog glimpses of as many strangers in the city. Because Stanton simply wishes to present his subjects as he finds them, the effect is to show genuine individuals instead of stereotypes or caricatures, to induce sympathy for people in all sorts of circumstances, to show the commonality of all human beings and, in contradistinction to most of Tumblr, to inspire hope that the human race is not irrevocably doomed.

In the modern world, where social critics warn of the anti-social effects of technology and the Internet, HONY shows us how both can be used for good. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch famously tells Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Through his art, Stanton puts us in the shoes of the teacher, the business man, the single parent, the twenty-something looking for a job, the immigrant, the veteran. We can laugh, learn and feel lifted or moved through their words.

This is because they are not the teacher, the business man, the single parent, the twenty-something looking for a job, the immigrant or the veteran. They are real individuals, more than the categories into which we put them.

The reporting of the Ferguson shooting, to give one example, divides us by fitting the people who were part of the incident into predefined categories that fit the narrative of whichever side is giving the “story” at any given time. It is a necessary result of the politicization of the news, whether Right or Left, that we jam square pegs into round holes to create the picture that makes our side look correct – something conservatives should not engage in, as I’ve written before.

The portraits on HONY are not of pegs, but of people. Whereas politicized news causes division and anger among Americans, the representations in its pictures of people like you and I in circumstances such as are common to man serve to bring us together, to build trust, perhaps even lead to more community.

Humans of New York is also good for the individual reader, imparting wisdom, humor, inspiration and more through its subjects. Who doesn’t need to be reminded from time to time about the power of prayer or the need to hold on to friendships? Who can’t use the inspiration from a rags-to-riches story or someone pursuing his dream? Maybe you just need a laugh or to be reminded of how blessed we are and that people everywhere have recognizable and consistent desires.

Whatever it is, Humans of New York provides it simply by recognizing that humans are fascinating to observe. That life, happy or sad, is beautiful. That people have worth.

One last word: Brandon Stanton has taken his project worldwide, showing us humans from all over the globe. This extension has its own value even beyond HONY’s usual focus. But plenty of other authors and publications have written about the Humans of the World development, in part because that’s when they really took notice. I wanted to point out what Humans of New York brings to us simply by showing us people in our own neighborhood.

I mean, who can help but smile at this little girl who realizes the camera is pointing at her?


*For an example, see the Thin Privilege-oriented Tumblr pages.