Last week I watched the talk that Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind the extremely popular blog Humans of New York, gave at Harvard University recently. His speech was inspiring and the questions he was asked by the students spurred insightful and thoughtful responses from the speaker. I think it’s worth your time, if you haven’t seen it.
In his speech, Brandon touched on some things that sound obvious when spoken out loud, but might not necessarily be obvious to our subconscious when we read through the stories of the humans of New York.
Brandon talks about his goal of sharing stories, and not opinions. He says that people ask him why he doesn’t use his new-found power to influence the world in a particular way–politically, for example. His response to those people (I’m paraphrasing) is that when you make it about sharing your own opinion, you aren’t really listening to people. When you make it about a political statement, you are only listening for the right phrase that will fit into your agenda. But when all you want to do is understand that person, you truly listen to them.
Isn’t that a relief? HONY is simply about listening to people’s stories.
One of the reasons I think Humans of New York is such a success is that in a world of sound bites and twitter feeds, HONY is reminiscent of another cultural phenomenon: the family dinner table—a table where people listen to each other, for no other reason than to understand one another.
The ironic part is that these stories are being put up on social media, in the form of brief captions. The medium for sharing these deeply personal stories is about the most superficial platform one could use. And yet, the captions are nothing close to a tweet or a political sound bite. They are the result of a series of thoughtful questions that draw out the most genuine feelings people have, and often, their most heart-wrenching story–sometimes told in a single sentence.
An opinion from a stranger usually evokes a shallow range of emotions ranging from agreement to disagreement, and is far less powerful than a story. A story, on the other hand, can trigger empathy; the result being that stories can do a much better job of changing opinions than simply sharing opinions.
If you are familiar with Humans of New York, you probably know that many of the photo captions from the portraits Brandon takes come from questions like, “what was the saddest moment of your life?”, or the happiest, or most regretful. Or, “what do you feel most guilty about”? While most of us might go our entire lives never asking those questions to our closest loved ones, those are the questions that Brandon asks complete strangers. It very well might be that we haven’t asked our loved ones these questions because we have lived our lives with them, and we know the answers. But it could also be that we just never thought to ask.
What I personally love about Humans of New York, and what I would bet most people love about Humans of New York, is that these small insights into the lives of strangers never evoke judgment or criticism. Brandon’s portrayals of people invite us to empathize rather than critique–a refreshing diversion from our other social media feeds. What’s more, HONY offers proof that stories are a necessary part of feeling compassion and charity toward others. And we like that reminder.
In his speech, Brandon mentions that he majored in history. As a history major myself, I was thrilled to hear it. History is the study of human nature. It is the study of the same stories told over and over again, through different people and through different circumstances, throughout the ages. Something Brandon said along those lines was that the more he stopped people on the street to talk with them, the less it felt to him that this person was “a lot like me”, and the more it became, “this person is me in different circumstances”.
Another reason we love Humans of New York: it is about other humans, and never Brandon. The man behind the curtain has been very deliberate in letting his work speak for itself—and I imagine that is a very hard thing to do when people are constantly tempting you to step into the spotlight. But Brandon is as likable as the people he interviews because he is equally as honest. He genuinely cares about the people he photographs, and if he stopped caring about them, HONY would be just another photography blog. It is really loving people that makes him humble, and his humility that helps him love other people.
It is difficult to love others when you don’t think you have much in common with them. But if you trust that everyone is more like you than you realize, then you are more equipped to love them than you realize. We love to be invited to love other people. And while it’s admittedly much easier to feel love for a stranger than to show love to your neighbor, the invitation is a great place to start.
We don’t do any good deed when we read HONY, but developing a love for the stories of other people is a sure way of accidentally developing a love for other people. Stories of all kinds serve an amazing purpose, then. Whether they be in the form of a well-written novel, a conversation with your grandma over a glass of wine, or in the voice of the stranger in the elevator.
Humans of New York reminds us of what we already know: that stories are important, and that they are at the heart of our existence. Without them, we would be left to think that we are all more unique than we really are, and that the battles we fight are solely our own.
Everyone wants to feel like they have a voice, to be heard. We all want to feel understood as the individuals that we are. But we frequently forget that our collective stories are so similar. And when we remember that we all struggle with the same deep longings and desires, loving others as we love ourselves becomes a much easier task.
And that’s why I think we love Humans of New York. What do you think?
All photos from the Humans of New York website. Visit the site for more pictures, and the stories behind them.