Posted by: Sam Stone | October 19, 2014

Humans of New York

As I was looking at John Thomson’s photographs of Victorian street life, I couldn’t help connecting these photographs with the ones I had seen numerous times on a photoblog popularized by its Facebook page that always seemed to be popping up on my news feed. The page is called Humans of New York and I’m sure most people have heard of it in some way since it started back in 2010. That, or they’ve heard of one of its many spin-offs. I’m pretty sure there’s even a Humans of Mount Holyoke page on Facebook now.

Brandon Stanton is the guy who started the blog. In his senior year of college at the University of Georgia, a $3,000 bet that Barack Obama would win the presidential election in 2008 led to a job trading bonds on the Chicago Board of Trade. When things started to go wrong and he lost his job, he decided to move to New York City and take pictures of strangers on the street. What originally began as a project cataloging the inhabitants of New York City turned into something much more when he started to interview the people he photographed.

What made me make the connection between John Thomson’s photographs and Brandon Stanton’s blog was not just the fact that both of them took photographs of people on the city streets. It was more that they both had stories to go along with the photographs that they took. Instead of just looking at a photograph and wondering who the people are, we are given further insight into their lives and what happened before the photograph was taken.

While the Humans of New York stories and interviews may not directly relate to the person being photographed, they usually make you stop and really think about what the person has to say or what they’re going through. Most of the time the captions are vague, just a sneak peek into a stranger’s life. But oftentimes these snippets reveal a lot about the person’s character and guides you further in trying to explain what is happening within the photograph. They give you enough information to be intriguing, yet leave much of the story to your imagination which is what I think really makes them popular. It is really fascinating to me that even spanning centuries and countries, there are still similarities in these two photographer’s works despite how different they truly are.

Here are a few interesting Humans of New York photographs that I found while browsing the website.

“So do you do a different color every day?”
“No, I used to go through different stages. But then I found that I was happiest when I was green, so I’ve been green for 15 years.”

“After this I go to work at a pizza shop. My wife and I were college professors in Bangladesh. I taught accounting. But one dollar in America becomes eighty dollars when we send it back home.”

“If everyone in the room believes the same thing, I get worried.”

And my personal favorite:

“Put me on the internet! Even on The Google!”

Sources:

All information and photographs found here: http://www.humansofnewyork.com/


Responses

  1. HONY is my favorite. Great post!

  2. I spoke in class last week about the connections between the John Thomson and HONY! Thanks for making a post about it 🙂
    I think what strikes me most about both projects is the privilege of the photographer. Both men are able to walk up to random people on the street and ask them questions and ask for their photos. I can’t imagine a similar project led by a non-male and/or non-white person which would gain as much popularity. As we discussed, Thomson posed each photo and conducted ~research about the pictured people’s lives. Because of his many privileges (race, gender, socio-economic background, etc.) he was able to view these people as objects of sympathy and curiosity. Likewise, Brandon Stanton is a lot less likely to be catcalled, threatened, mocked, or otherwise have his person and authority challenged when he approaches people on the street. Much as I love HONY and loved reading “Victorian Street Life,” I think it’s really important to recognize who the photographer is. The observer effect is very present in street photography, and in many ways these portraits capture the photographer as much as the photographed.

  3. Sarah Jane makes an interesting point about the identity of the photographer. Both examples here are white males; yet, there is a presence of women street photographers. Maybe not so surprisingly, however, these women seem to be confined to street fashion photography. CollegeFashionista is a website started by a University of Indiana grad named Amy Levin. It used to be featured on only a few campuses, but has grown enormously and now has a presence on most campuses across the country and several internationally. Although more men have recently gotten involved, it is mostly women taking street-style photos of other women. It is obviously fashion driven, but uses the same skills and has the same intention as the street-photos we’ve looked at in class. The fashion industry is overwhelmingly female run, so are we surprised that this is the one realm where women are participating in street-style photos and dominating it? Can anyone think of another industry where women take photos in this manner? What is the demographics of that industry?


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