When I asked my friends what Humans of New York means to them, one said it makes her cry and another said she loves that such a simple idea can give us a complex insight into the lives of people from different backgrounds. These two responses paired together prove how invaluable HONY is; it allows us to empathise, and most importantly with people we don’t communicate with.
Through its raw, honest, captivating snapshots of people’s lives, ‘Humans of New York’ celebrates personal achievements, it highlights vulnerability, hopes, ambitions and struggles with no political or commercial motive.
Our experience of the world is limited; we all go about our daily routines, interact with the same people and often get too caught up in our own to-do lists. HONY gives us perspective. Every day its 26 million followers on social media learn about someone’s life: their dreams, their history, their hobbies, their family and what it’s like to stand in their shoes. We step outside of our own bubble, we’re reminded of our privilege, we feel a connection, we want to help, we smile or cry.
When reading the series set in Iraq, one quote stuck with me: “I wish people would understand that Iraq is filled with intelligent, civilized people.” This perfectly summarises the whole series, which features a child who can speak different languages just from playing out with other children in the street, two young boys who want to be doctors,a man who works 18 hours a day. These stories give us a meaningful, honest depiction of Iraq which goes way beyond any politicised representation in western media.
In a podcast with Brandon Stanton, the creator of HONY, he said that very often, when he travels to a new place, he is warned that “people aren’t friendly there” or “people won’t talk to you there”. Stanton went on to say that these perceptions are always wrong; people are more than willing to talk, and moreover they are extremely friendly.
It seems the people making these statements have such a strong western superiority complex, they see it as a ticket to make broad assumptions about people they’ve never spoken to, from a place they’ve never been. I can’t help but think this attitude stems from our media. For example, Africa is constantly referred to as a poverty-stricken continent, out of laziness, rather than focusing on its individual countries. This damaging generalisation of such a huge continent is degrading; it erases any notion that Africa’s countries could possibly have their own individual culture. HONY helps to redefine countries and debunk stereotypes by simply communicating with people who live there.
We can learn a lot from Stanton’s work; even from his simple act of approaching strangers – he takes an interest, he listens, and in doing so he rejects the ‘us vs. them’ mentality which underpins western media’s portrayal of our divided world.
When I read the HONY stories, I find there are common factors that unite us all: hope, compassion and the value of other people in our lives. When we take the time to listen to others, we realise we’re not that different at all.