“Hey there. I’m Brandon. I get really passionate about things. At some time in my life, I’ve been obsessed or borderline-obsessed with saltwater aquariums, the baritone euphonium, reading, piano, filming, financial markets, New York City, and photography. I studied History at the University of Georgia. During my senior year of college, I took out $3,000 in student loans and bet it on Barack Obama to win the presidency. A friend heard about this bet and got me a job trading bonds on the Chicago Board of Trade. I traded for three years. It went really well for awhile. But then it went really bad. Whoops. After I lost my trading job, I decided to move to New York City and take portraits of strangers on the street. Mom wasn’t too happy about that decision, but so far it’s gone pretty well. I’ve taken nearly 5,000 portraits and written 50 stories. And I’ve met some amazing people along the way.”
This paragraph is on the home page of the website for Humans of New York. Now a best-selling published book and the subject of a highly successful blog, Brandon Stanton’s intro doesn’t really tell the whole story. In 2010 he had a goal to take ten thousand New Yorkers’ pictures and plot them on a map. I have often had the same thought regarding pictures of my family.
The amazing thing about Brandon’s photography, though, is the story that each picture tells. The Georgia native began taking pictures as a hobby while living in Chicago. He has since traveled under the auspices of the United Nations, taking part in a fifty-day trip through ten nations. Last year he did the same in Pakistan and Iran and crowd funded a project to help end bonded labor in Pakistan.
Stanton’s photographs are not technically perfect. After all, he was a history major in college. What they do, however, is bring the human condition into focus. They capture a moment in time that is an entire book. Not all of the minute portraits are completely candid shots. There are the critics as well. Recently, Robert John Boyle published an article at salon.com regarding the sugarcoating of Brandon’s subjects and the presentation that Boyle called “sentimentality”.
Over the most recent December holiday season Brandon Stanton raised over half a million dollars to help Syrian refugees. Boyle considers the “dumbing down” of the political aspect outweighs any good the money might accomplish. It is a common debate in the world of humanitarian efforts.
The visual content of the pictures found within Humans of New York make us listen, not only to the subject of the photograph but to the world around us. When all we hear is our own ego, we are unable to hear reality and the needs the world is calling us to repair.
“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.” This anecdote from Stanton’s blog and book is just one example of the truths found accompanying each picture. One of my favorites is the young child Stanton saw. Wanting to take her picture he started asking nearby adults “Does she belong to you?” Suddenly the little girl responded “I belong to myself!”
What if we listened to the world as belonging to each of us? Observe a group of mothers and you will learn that each seems to know her own baby’s cry and what that cry means. When I was single I laughed at the thought of understanding a baby’s cry… and then I became a mother. I soon became one of “those mothers’. Most of us dog owners can recognize our own dog’s bark and usually what it means. (My cats also speak to me but we all know that cats merely do that to get our attention. After all, no human is smart enough to understand cat-speak!)
When we listen – not just hear but really listen – great things can happen. Stephen Covey knew how often we fail to really listen: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
We each can be a humanitarian if we would just listen, really listen, to what the world is telling us, to what our neighbors are saying. I think Leo Buscaglia, another best-selling author, penned it succinctly: “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”