I’m willing to bet that, at some point or another, you have encountered a post by Humans of New York. Photographer Brandon Stanton posts images that he takes of strangers on the streets of New York after striking a conversation to find out more about them. He asks them questions about their lives and then publishes the photograph of the person – captioned by something they said during the conversation – on social media. The result of this process creates raw photographs which seem to capture the true nature of their subjects. My favourite part – and I’m sure the favourite part of a large proportion of his millions of fans – is the quote that accompanies the photo. Sometimes it is funny, and sometimes it is only a couple of words; sometimes it is joyful, brings hope, or drives a sadness into you that you never assumed a social media post had the power to do.
Here are a handful of posts that particularly touched me.*
“I’ve been having nerve issues, and this past year it’s gotten so bad that it hurts too much for me to walk. It was completely unexpected. I’ve always been such an optimistic person, but now I’m fighting with depression. He’s doing everything he can to take my mind off of it. We’re not sure if I’m going to get better, but he’s planning a backpacking tour through Europe for when I do. And I told him that I didn’t think I could handle a visit to New York right now, but he told me that he’d push me around the whole city. And he has. And whenever I feel particularly down, he tells me that he’s not going anywhere, and how happy he is that he married me. Not long ago I had a particularly rough period, and when I was at one of my lowest moments, he asked if we could renew our vows.”
“I’m going to see my mother.”
“Oh, is it her birthday?”
“Nope, I just love my mother, and she loves flowers.”
“After I was born, I was the subject of a 45-minute dissertation at Columbia University. Almost all of my organs were born externally, and had to be sewn into my body. I don’t have a belly button– only a scar where my feeding tube used to be. My mother even tells me that she wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to stand, eat, or drink. But now I can rollerblade. I can do a handstand on my crutches. I’ve got a core group of friends, a girlfriend, a college degree, and I’m helping to manage a radio station at the age of 23.”
“When I was 19, my girlfriend and I were going to study in Paris. Our boyfriends came to the docks to see us off. Right as we were getting on the ship, my friend’s boyfriend said to her: ‘If you go, I won’t wait for you.’ So she turned around and decided to stay. My fiance saw this and told me: ‘I won’t wait for you either.’
I said: ‘Don’t!’”
“When my husband was dying, I said: ‘Moe, how am I supposed to live without you?’ He told me: ‘Take the love you have for me and spread it around.”
“We first met at a café in the West Village, and I was completely taken by her. But the next day I had to leave for a six-week trip to Afghanistan. Soon after I arrived, I bought her a traditional Afghan locket that holds a small prayer. Instead of a prayer, I wrote a little poem, and stuffed it inside. It said: ‘Mountains and months away, and I’m still haunted by one afternoon in New York.’”
The series of posts became so popular and inspiring that Brandon got a book published, compiled of his photographs and collected quotations; his blog was already popular, and his book – now a number 1 New York Times Bestseller – succeeded the publishing market. He also took the light that the popularity of his work shed on him as an opportunity to draw attention to significant happenings across the world; the photographer has published a series of posts on the refugee crisis, and has recently published a series on pediatric cancer. Both series are severely difficult to observe and read, as are his series on Syrian Americans, and inmates, as well as the posts that the photographer has published about others suffering or struggling, such as abuse victims or those sacrificing more than you and I can imagine to provide for their families. However, Brandon has organised donation funds for those in need and has inspired others to help; he has, with his fame, raised millions for those who need it.
Brandon Stanton has also inspired other creative individuals with Humans of New York; there are now pages which embody the idea of his work called Humans of London, Humans of Sri Lanka, Humans of Bombay, and many more. Social media played a vital role in the photographer’s road to success, spreading his published work globally through the help of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram and eventually leading him to a publishing contract.
Alongside his humility, I myself find it inspiring how Brandon turned his hobby of photography into not only a living, but a way of genuinely helping strangers. The idea of his work captures the very essence of the human nature as it draws attention to vulnerabilities and joys that the human eye alone can not detect by just looking at someone; Brandon Stanton photographs people as they are, and it is this, I think, that draws so many of us to his work.