Wednesday 11 December 2019

The HONY effect: How 'Humans of New York' is altering lives

A photo from Humans of New York Facebook page. The caption reads:
A photo from Humans of New York Facebook page. The caption reads: "In my heart of hearts, I wanted to do the right thing, but selling drugs was easy. Everyone was doing it. I mean, I'm not using that as an excuse, I made my own decisions."

Natasha Culzac

You’ve got hundreds of Facebook friend requests, your phone’s incandescent with text messages, and you’ve got countless emails from complete strangers telling you how they admire your style or sympathise with what you’re going through – but you weren’t on the X Factor, nor were you pictured falling out of a black cab with a Swedish prince. No, your picture was simply taken by New Yorker Brandon Stanton and uploaded onto his blog.

In 2010, when Stanton found himself without his banking job and having just got his hands on his first semi-professional camera, he began taking pictures of complete strangers in the Big Apple with the aim of creating a sort of photographic census.

Humans of New York (Hony), a personal project which has spiralled into an international phenomenon, has since racked up eight million fans on Facebook and hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and Tumblr.

Stanton uploads his street portraits with a fragment of the conversation he held with his subject, but like a laparoscopic surgeon, he somehow extracts highly sensitive secrets thanks to a cautious and friendly approach that baffles his admirers.

“Just how does he get closed-off city dwelllers to splurge their deepest and darkest thoughts?” is the kind of muse that Facebook commenters often make on his posts, or, as he explained to a TEDx audience last year, just how does he “deflect awkwardness”?

Earlier this month, one of Stanton’s volunteers revealed that a tumultuous relationship he had been in, ended tragically when the partner spontaneously died from a seizure during one of their “little breaks” – it was four months before he found out his partner had passed away and when he did, the family had no idea that he existed.

A photo from the Humans of New York Facebook page. The caption reads:
A photo from the Humans of New York Facebook page. The caption reads: "I'm a court reporter. He's a judge. Office romance."

This kind of candid story is littered throughout the group’s feed on a daily basis.

It appears that the blog panders to our inherent curiosity and perhaps even just helps us remember that everyone else is just as dejected, messed-up or as weird as ourselves, but what of these honest participants days, weeks or months after they’ve been profiled?

After all, these people did not seek Stanton out - they were merely walking through the grid of New York en route to work or a date, for example, when stopped by the photographer.

They haven’t applied for a TV show, nor are they even particularly newsworthy. They’re just average people in a serendipitous situation.

Another photo from the popular Facebook page. It reads: 'Today in microfashion...'
Another photo from the popular Facebook page. It reads: 'Today in microfashion...'

Take a teenage band arduously trying to raise its profile. The father of the drummer was on a cigarette break when photographed by Stanton on 4 July.

He had told the inquisitive photographer: “I'm the manager of my 14-year-old son's heavy metal band. I pay for everything and handle promotion. Work is stressful, so it's my release.”

In the comments section, after the picture had been uploaded, Stanton gave a link to the band’s Facebook Page.

“After the picture was spread around, we had a massive surge of likes,” Jack Rose, Xero Gravity’s bass player, told The Independent.

“On the morning of 4 July we had 2,026 or so likes on Facebook - 12 hours later we hit 22,000.

“It was massive and we had people from all around the world interested in us and talking about us. It was insane. The only negative things that arose were people getting confused of the roles of people in or around the band.

“For example, people were saying that our manager, which is our drummer Steven's father, paid for everything and paved our way without us paying any dues, which is completely false. We all earn money together, have money saved up from concerts and merch, and have jobs and try to put anything we can to the band.”

The boys are now releasing their debut EP in August.

It was the same for artist Benjamin Herndon, who had never heard of Hony. During the chance encounter in Grand Central Terminal in December, he had imagined that Stanton “was just working on some school project or something.”

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