Brandon Stanton has made a name for himself by taking random pictures of people in New York City. How? That’s the question many are asking, as the New York Times reports that his new book Humans of New York “has become an instant publishing phenomenon.” The book is a compilation of hundreds of his images and interviews.
The project originally started on Stanton’s Tumblr blog and website, HumansofNewYork.com. Stanton, a 29-year-old Georgia native, began walking up to complete strangers on the street, and would ask permission to take their picture. He usually published the pictures with a brief snippet of their conversation.
The stories are often humorous and somber. Take, for existence, two contrasting recent posts—the first features a man unloading boxes of Coronas:
“What was the saddest moment of your life?”
“Probably when I got arrested after a bar fight in Vegas.”
“What was the fight about?”
“I don’t even remember.”
“Do you remember the most frightened you’ve ever been?”
“Probably when I had a gun pulled on me in Canada.”
“I think it started with us trying to pull a tree out of the ground, and ended in us chanting “USA! USA! Then somebody pulled out a gun.”
“I’m noticing a pattern.”
“Yeah, same group of guys.”
The second picture only shows a man’s shoes:
“My girlfriend and I aborted a child a couple of weeks ago.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“We didn’t lose anything. It was a choice.”
“Were both of you equally on board with the decision?”
“She followed my lead, which made it tougher I guess. But I’ve got so much going on right now, and she just opened her own theater show. It’s just not the right time.”
“How’s the aftermath been?”
“You know, I always thought of abortion as a common thing. I’m a liberal guy. Pro-choice and everything. But I never imagined how bloody painful it was going to be.”
“Do you mind if I post your story?”
“With my picture? I’d prefer not.”
Why do people enjoy reading Stanton’s stories and looking at the pictures? Stanton himself doesn’t seem sure, though he credits it to empathy built through the images: “It seemed like a stupid idea, just taking pictures of people on the street,” he told the New York Times. “But there’s a comfort, an affirmation, a validation in being exposed to people with similar problems.”
This explanation may hold true for some—but it also seems a somewhat narcissistic motivation. Do we really only care to read the stories of people who affirm and validate our own problems? Or is there something deeper at root here?
Some people can identify a moment when they have an overwhelming sense of the “other”: a moment in which our alienation from the mental, emotional, and physical existence of billions becomes sharp and poignant. Perhaps this moment happens while driving down a highway or staring out the window of an airplane. But in that moment, you suddenly realize: there are millions of lives, stories, and perspectives that you will never know. All human beings yearn for connection, for a destruction of mental and emotional alienation. We often have a sense that, if only we could, strangers on the street could become our kith and kin.
One of the greatest beauties of Stanton’s project is that it breaks down this barrier of finitude, if only for a brief moment in time. He enables readers to see and experience the perspective of a stranger. The viewer will probably never meet Stanton’s subjects in person—but in that moment, the reader and stranger share a connection. This is one of the beauties of literature: it bridges the divide of “other,” enabling us to taste and experience life beyond our own. Stanton’s project, with its juxtaposition of image and text, does the same. By cataloguing shared features of humanness, replete with longing, regret, and joy, he identifies a hidden community bridging all geographical, intellectual, social, and racial divides: a hidden community of simple humanness.