Op Ed: HONY Gets It Right

By Shreya Patel

Humans of New York is a vastly popular blog about New Yorkers by former bond trader Brandon Stanton. After being laid off from his job, he set off with a camera in hand with a project to take 10,000 photographs of people around New York and plot them on a map. First, the blog started as just photos of people, but he soon began including quotes from these New Yorkers – which is when the blog started attracting more followers. The HONY Facebook page now boasts almost 12,000,000 likes. The blog offers the online world the opportunity to take a step through their screen into the life of a particular person or group. The beauty of all of this is that (besides a few exceptions), the photo and the quote are impromptu – enabling us to see the person raw.

When we learn about the lives and insights of these strangers, we gain a sense of empathy. In everyday life, many of us never venture out of our social circles, which are typically composed of people of similar backgrounds as us. For example, I’m a sophomore pre-Medical student involved in a couple student organizations. The people I interact with the most are those in classes (such as physics or organic chemistry) with me, involved in the same student organizations (my sorority, Honors College, etc) as me. I would most likely never meet a senior English major who is not involved on campus. I would not know them because they are not like me. Yes, we may live in the same city and go to the same school, but we would most likely never meet because we are different. This is also true on a large scale. I’m a college student in Norman, Oklahoma. I will most likely never meet a 45 year-old construction worker in Portland, Oregon unless there is something to connect us. We very rarely interact with people outside of our circles, which make the lives of others foreign to us. We never hear of the struggle a person is going through. Or, we may know that a problem exists, but nobody we know has this problem. This makes it impossible to empathize with people from different walks of life. HONY makes it possible for us to understand a situation and visualize the person that goes along with it, making issues real. This allows us to empathize and connect with the person we are seeing on the screen. HONY also allows us to see people as individuals, rather than view them under stereotypes or their single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes in her TED Talk. HONY allows people to choose how they present themselves and to tell their own story themselves, allowing the rest of the world to see them how they want to be seen. Depictions of people by the media can be so stigmatizing. Take the portrayal of Africa, for instance. The media portrays the people in countries across the continent as helpless and uncivilized. In this post by HONY, we see that this is not the case.

"We don't like pictures like this. It is not good to deduce an entire country to the image of a person reaching out for food. It is not good for people to see us like this, and it is not good for us to see ourselves like this. This gives us no dignity. We don't want to be shown as a country of people waiting for someone to bring us food. Congo has an incredible amount of farmland. An incredible amount of resources. Yes, we have a lot of problems. But food is not what we are reaching for. We need investment. We need the means to develop ourselves."  (Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo)
“We don’t like pictures like this. It is not good to deduce an entire country to the image of a person reaching out for food. It is not good for people to see us like this, and it is not good for us to see ourselves like this. This gives us no dignity. We don’t want to be shown as a country of people waiting for someone to bring us food. Congo has an incredible amount of farmland. An incredible amount of resources. Yes, we have a lot of problems. But food is not what we are reaching for. We need investment. We need the means to develop ourselves.”
(Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo)

Ideas of empathy and self-presentation are so important when related to social justice, and HONY allows us to engage with these concepts.

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