People always say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I think words are pretty valuable too. And so does Brandon Stanton, the creator of the social media phenomenon “Humans of New York.” Brandon takes photographs of people he encounters on the streets, depicting them in the manner they desire, and provides a platform for them to tell their stories. Although it sounds simple enough, anyone who looks at a HONY post can tell immediately that there is something special about his approach.
Brandon’s story itself is pretty cool. He started off trading bonds in Chicago, a lucrative career that many post-grads would love to have. But things didn’t turn out well for Brandon, and he lost his job. So, Brandon moved to New York City with the idea to take a photographic/geographic census of sorts, but soon found that this alone didn’t satisfy him.
Brandon took photographs of people, but couldn’t help but be pulled into their lives. As the project grew, he became compelled by the stories that people had to tell, and his project evolved into a way to present these humans to the wider world. The people in the pictures are as varied as they come — he photographs people of all ages, races, genders, and socioeconomic status, conveying the same wonder and respect for everyone.
Brandon isn’t afraid to engage in the complexities of the day-to-day. His photos capture happiness and joy, yes, but also deep suffering and the difficulties of life. Being a human himself, he can’t help but be affected by what he sees. He has traveled to Iraq and South Sudan with the United Nations to present the human face of people whose struggles and joys we often trivialize as just a segment of the evening news. He used HONY to help raise over a million dollars for Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a middle school that strives to provide a positive environment in a crime stricken area of Brooklyn.
To me, Humans of New York is a force for hope. Nadia Lopez, the principal of Mott Hall thinks so too, “Before all of this happened for our school, I felt broken,” she says. “And I think the world felt a little broken too, because a lot of bad things have been happening lately, especially between black people and white people. But all of you gave people a reason to feel a little less broken.”
We are, all of us, broken people. We all have scars and challenges. But we all have so much beauty too, and stories worth telling. We all have dignity and value. Recognizing and honoring a person’s humanity is Brandon’s gift, and why his project touches the heart so deeply. Brandon can see beauty in others, and he allows their beauty to shine through, so that they and the world can see it.
Does this principle sound familiar? To me, it is the personification of Catholic Social Teaching, which sees every person as equal and beautiful, made in the “image and likeness of God.” I’ve always thought of it as God painting a self-portrait, and we’re that portrait. So this means that not only are the attendees of the Met Gala the face of Jesus, but so is the homeless man that everyone dismisses as a nuisance. So is the undocumented college graduate who people label as “illegal.” So is the elderly woman who has spunk to spare. So is the child who still has pure dreams.
Brandon sees a suffering world, but a world of potential and wonder, and responds. He engages with people in their brokenness, treating them all with equality and love. Brandon looks for opportunities to use his platform to help where he can, and by not accepting sponsors, he can ensure that he is doing this for the right reasons. Through social media, he spreads the virtue of compassion.
I want to live more like that. I think that reading HONY is a good place to start, but more than that, I need to learn to really look at the people with whom I cross paths every day. Because they all have faces and stories, too, that are worth telling. I have the chance to become part of them, and honoring human’s story is the greatest gift of all.