Like many social media users, I have fallen victim to the magnetism of Humans of New York (HONY), a blog that documents both the miracles and tragedies of the city’s inhabitants. Tales of sorrow, loss, love and achievement are conveyed all through a photograph and a short interview, often prompted by questions such as: what advice would you give to a large group of people? What’s your biggest regret? What was the happiest moment in your life? What was the saddest?
This is what makes Humans of New York so unusually wonderful – you find yourself emphasizing and celebrating the tales of these strangers. Each story is like an instrument in a symphonic movement – each story told with unique and different tones that seamlessly blend together to create a enthralling masterpiece.
Humans of New York has now attempted a new angle of presenting the stories of strangers – by conveying the tales of struggle and triumph of people from all corners of the globe. More specifically, HONY has travelled in partnership with the United Nations to raise awareness for the Millennial Development Goals. The countries HONY photographer Brandon Stanton has visited are names that through the media have become synonymous with disorder, murder, and despair. Unknowingly, we have been conditioned by these media reports to grimace at the mention of certain nations, and our preconceived ideas have unjustly marred these countries. HONY’s World Tour has moved past this metaphorical fog of perception and connected us to strangers thousands of miles away.
HONY has documented countries recently and currently ravaged by conflict and social issues, through portraits of a father walking home with his daughter from school in Ukraine to a young couple reviewing the progress of their second date in India. The World Tour documented Iraq and Jordan during the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) siege of Northern Syria and Iraq, and many of the portraits were imbued with despondency, with a caption reading: “We left our hopes back in Syria”. One cannot help but empathize with such loss and isolation, and instead of being presented with an anonymous news crawl and the bottom of our screens, rather the victims are profoundly humanized in an unprecedented way. The tales of raids, sieges, and violence become personalized, the individual experiences of loss form a tragic mosaic.
Yet, as harrowing as these accounts and portraits are, we also subconsciously acquire a different type of wisdom: resilience. We learn that the human experience is indeed universal, we all desire love and success, despite our circumstances in our own home nation. However, despite the compassion that inevitably results from the HONY World Tour, the majority of these strangers has overcome their own struggles. A woman in the Ukraine who had been sexually abused and then had her arm amputated after a suicide attempt went on to pursue a career of easing other’s pain and anxiety. A young South Sudanese girl who lives in a displaced persons’ camp spoke of her ambition to be a pilot, to be “a leader of the air”. Our sense of empathy is rekindled, as we read the tale of an Iraqi man volunteered his own life in order to restore the health of her brain. We learn that compassion is congruent to resilience. We learn through the HONY World Tour that whilst different languages and customs may act as barriers, we are essentially all the same.
Humans of New York, especially its World Tour, reminds of me of fantastic F. Scott Fitzgerald quote:
“That is part of the beauty of literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You Belong.”
These portraits essentially do just that – by showing us we not only live in the world we inhabit, but we also belong.