Friday, Dec 01, 2023

‘Humans Of New York’, A Photo Project That Touched Millions Of Hearts

‘Humans Of New York’, A Photo Project That Touched Millions Of Hearts

‘Humans Of New York’ founder Brandon Stanton’s recent criticism towards ‘Humans of Bombay’ for using his storytelling approach and suing others over copyright drew global attention. But how did this internet sensation start and what was the idea behind it?

HONY founder Brandon Stanton (right) at one of his recent shoot locations
HONY founder Brandon Stanton (right) at one of his recent shoot locations Facebook/Humans of New York

Over the last decade, social media users have come across many photo blog pages that tell stories of people from a ‘human’ angle in an otherwise distorted depiction of reality. One of the most popular versions of these human stories is ‘Humans of New York’ – a collection of street portraits and interviews from the streets of New York City – started by photographer Brandon Stanton. The concept became so popular and loved that it had several spinoffs around the world, including two very prominent ones – ‘Humans of Amsterdam’ and ‘Humans of Bombay’.

While Stanton has largely celebrated the presence of ‘Humans of…’ spinoffs around the world, recently, he came out in criticism of the apparent double standard of ‘Humans of Bombay’ (HOB), created by Karishma Mehta, after she sued a local competitor, People of India, for copyright infringement. Stanton accused the account of “appropriation” and using his empathy-driven storytelling format for monetary gains.

Humans of New York (HONY) was founded in 2010 by Stanton shortly after he moved to New York City, losing his job as a bond trader in Chicago. The 39-year-old self-taught photographer had a goal of taking pictures of 10,000 people on the streets of the city he now called home. Initially, he used to click portraits and upload them on his blog every day. By year two, he slowly started adding short captions to it. Suddenly, people started noticing Stanton’s blog; the tiny bit of context he used to give resonated with his growing audience. 

An Internet Sensation

Stanton started sharing his photos with captions on his ‘Humans of New York’ Facebook page. And every photo he shared used to get him tens of thousands of likes. What really connected with the mass was his unique approach to the study of humanity – the raw human experience in all its shades of struggles, fears, hopes and dreams – that offered an amazing guide to creating a social media frenzy with real stories. He started adding small quotes in his captions that eventually evolved into full interviews. 

Stanton went viral. Even an accidental status change on his Facebook page to just ‘Q’ once got him nearly 100 likes within minutes. His storytelling approach started being imitated by users around the world, he did not contest it. In 2013, he published his book titled ‘Humans of New York’ which sold 30,000 copies as preorders and reached the No. 1 position on The New York Times Non-Fiction Best Sellers. In December that year, Stanton was named one of Time magazine's "30 Under 30 People Changing the World".

Thirteen years later, he has 17 million followers on Facebook and 12 million followers on Instagram.

Stanton started travelling elsewhere in America with his camera including Boston, San Francisco, Austin, and even around the world. In 2014, he took on a 50-day trip through 10 countries in the Middle East with the United Nations. In 2015, he travelled to Pakistan and Iran. He also traveled to Europe with UNHCR where he studied war zones and migrant crises. In a lot of his trips, Stanton started crowdfunding campaigns to help various charities. 

In January 2015, he was invited to the Oval Office to interview President Barack Obama. The next year, Stanton opposed Donald Trump's presidential campaign over hateful speech. His Facebook post criticising Trump had over 1.6 million likes and was shared nearly 1 million times.

A Simple Goal

In many interviews, Stanton has emphasised how his goal was simply to chase his passion and tell stories of normal people through his photos. Stanton’s journey with photography speaks for thousands of people who leave their jobs behind to turn their hobbies into full-time careers.

In an interview to BBC, Stanton said, “If I had one goal, it would be that a large amount of people appreciated what I devoted my life to.” 

Speaking to NPR’s Michel Martin on why he thinks his stories connect with people, Stanton said, “I think that if you ask with a genuine interest and a genuine curiosity and a level of compassion, there's very little that someone won't share with you.”

He said that some of the HONY stories are “very personal and very revealing” but the discomfort with sharing tends to be overridden by the appreciation they get from distilling their life experiences into a story and sharing it with other people.

In the latest controversy with ‘Humans Of Bombay’, which filed a lawsuit against ‘People of India’ calling it an "identical portal/service", Stanton criticised Karishma Mehta. He said he does not identify with anyone who is “creating a certain lifestyle for themselves”.

The case drew global attention after Stanton commented on the news saying, “You can't be suing people for what I've forgiven you for." He said that he has stayed quiet on “the appropriation of my work” because he felt HOB shared important stories “even if they've monetized far past anything I'd feel comfortable doing on HONY”. 

Throughout the years, Stanton’s approach to HONY has never appeared as a business model. Even if he has tied up with the UN or others, they have had a charitable approach with the main motive of telling stories of people.

HOB clarified in a post on X that it was "grateful" to HONY and Stanton for "starting this storytelling movement". Mehta’s team also said that the lawsuit was "not about storytelling at all" but related to the intellectual property of its posts. But Stanton issued a statement on Monday, saying “For the last thirteen years I haven’t received a penny for a single story told on Humans of New York, despite many millions offered.” 

“Beautiful art can make money, there is nothing wrong with that. But when art begins with a prift motive, it ceases to become art,” he said, adding that he does not identify with anyone who is using it for “creating a certain lifestyle for themselves”.

Mehta has admitted in past interviews, that the platform functioned as a business and ran on ads. She also admitted to collaborations with brands like Amazon, Unilever and WhatsApp for campaigns. She has previously been criticised for running a five-part interview of Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of 2019 general elections.