‘Humans of New York’ Redefines Social Media Activism

300
300

Since its inception in the summer of 2010, ‘Humans of New York’ has become a worldwide phenomenon. Originally intended as a photographic venture to document solely New Yorkers, it has expanded in scope in the past 5 years. Each portrait on the blog is accompanied with its own caption, taken from an interview with the photograph’s subject. While photographer and  creator Brandon Stanton continues to focus on his blog’s namesake city, he also has had the opportunity to temporarily take his project abroad.

Last summer, Stanton partook in a 50-day tour across 10 countries in partnership with the United Nations.  Continuing his summer abroad tradition, this year’s venture was a trip to Iran and Pakistan.

While in Pakistan, Stanton documented the bonded labor system in its brick kilns. According to activist group, ‘Bonded Labor Liberation Front’, over 20,000 brick kilns operate in Pakistan, preying on the illiterate, desperate to accept loans in exchange for their labor. This process is cyclical; due to the terms of their contract, the debt of these workers rises exponentially, tying them and their family to the kilns. Several activists describe the situation as “modern day slavery,” over one million are estimated to be ensnared in this process.

After Stanton spoke to Syeda Ghulam Fatima, the group’s general secretary, he posted portraits of her, where she asked readers to donate to her charity in the caption. Due to overwhelming response from his readers, he set up a fundraising page with a goal of raising $100,000. Within 72 hours, nearly $2 million was donated. According to the site, as of today, nearly $2.5 million has been raised by over 76,000 individuals.

This is only the blog’s most recent philanthropic venture. Previous endeavors involve the Mott Hall Bridges Academy (MHBA), a middle school located in a neighborhood with one of the highest crime rates in New York City. This was possible due to Stanton’s chance encounter with one of the Academy’s students, who spoke highly of his principal in his portrait’s caption. The portrait went viral, prompting Stanton to further investigate the school and begin a crowdfunding effort. His audience responded enthusiastically, raising $1.4 million. With this money, MHBA has created a scholarship fund for its graduates as well as yearly trips to Harvard University for the incoming 6th grade class.

The unparalleled success of ‘Humans of New York’ in terms of its philanthropy, is a lesson for modern activism. HONY is ultimately so effective not only because of the blog’s large Facebook followers, but also because of the ties that bind all 15 million fans together.  It’s more than a hashtag on Instagram or Twitter. Whether intentional or not, ‘Humans of New York’ engages the pathos and ethos of its audiences. Readers are compelled to donate to Stanton’s various causes because philanthropy inevitably is interconnected with emotions, which are the cornerstones of ‘Humans of New York’.

As a photographer, Stanton manages to capture the vulnerabilities of his subjects.  It is this humanity that unites Stanton’s readership and allows them to sympathize with strangers, other ordinary people with ordinary stories. Stanton’s project reiterates the simple truth that people are fundamentally the same no matter where they are and it is this realization that is so powerful.  There are only so many ways a mother can express her sorrow after losing her child or an activist can express his frustration over the rigidity of the socioeconomic hierarchy. Quite frankly, as so many of the blog’s readers have commented, the photograph’s location is irrelevant.

As a result, ‘Humans of New York’ challenges the media’s portrayal of countries with problematic relations with the United States.  Very rarely are the headlines involving foreign relations positive and over time, the negative spin leads to false stereotypes of these nations.  Stanton challenges these stereotypes by literally heading to the trenches and unearthing the majority that’s untouched by Western news channels and revising the part that is.  The process is fruitful and eye-opening for citizens of foreign countries as well as inhabitants of the countries themselves.

It’s important to note that Stanton is merely a messenger, but perhaps that’s what modern activists need in order to be heard not necessarily a prophet, but a platform to be reminded of one’s own humanity and that of those around them. As exemplified by ‘Humans of New York’, social media activism needs more than a catchy hashtag in order to be effective and long lasting. Yet ‘Humans of New York’ is not an emotional barrage; it straddles the line between detached and despondent. The blog is simple in concept and genuinely heartfelt in content and that’s what makes it so formidable.


Brittany Pham is a second year biological sciences major. She can be reached at brittaqp@uci.edu.

In this article