Is Humans of New York real journalism?
August 21, 2014 | 12:25 pm
By Joanna Cabot
It’s nice to see one of my favourite Facebook pages, ‘Humans of New York,’ getting a little press these days. As the New York Times reports, HONY head chief Brandon Stanton has gone global, taking his slice-of-life photography on a UN-sponsored trip to ten countries.
I have been following the series (and indeed, the ‘blog’ as a whole) and it’s brilliant in its simplicity: Stanton finds an interesting person, photographs them and then posts the photograph along with a little sound bite from the person. He has a way of getting his subjects to reveal profound truths about themselves, and their philosophies of life, which is touching and beautiful. In one of my favourite posts from his little tour abroad, a man is photographed on a simple wooden bench which sits on a dirt path. He tells this story:
“”My brother went to college in America, and it was very hard for my parents to send him there. My father worked two jobs. I’d always hear him talking to my mother about money troubles. So when I graduated from high school, I went straight to work, to help pay for my brother’s school. I never resented it, because I knew he was more intelligent than me, and he deserved it. But now he has a great job in Australia, and I wish that I’d gone to college. But you know what? That same brother married into a family with two sisters. He married the older sister. And at the wedding, I met the younger sister, we danced, and now we are married. Her name means ‘angel,’ and she is my angel. And I tell her every day that she’s better than being a millionaire. So my brother got his job. And I got my wife.”
The comments during his trip abroad have been interesting. People have praised Stanton for ‘humanizing’ the Arab world, for showing that people are the same no matter the country, and for adding context to the life of people living in difficult conditions. But is Stanton adding context, or adding sound bites? Is he doing ‘journalism’ or is this something different? The NYT story offers some thought-provoking critiques of Stanton’s otherwise lauded method:
“Nina Berman, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the photographer behind the book “Purple Hearts: Back From Iraq,” praised Mr. Stanton’s work but said that the travel series “doesn’t allow for any complexity, give you any historical information or any way to access the greater picture.” She added, “It’s a way to get news from a frightening, inaccessible place that seems safe and cozy.”
Two others quoted in the story add the further critiques that it is ‘misleading’ to suggest that a discussion of politics in these issues can be avoided, and that the stories as they are might not prompt people to learn further. But are these criticisms fair? Can’t it be argued that the context, and the politics, can come from other news sources which do they better, and that Stanton’s role is merely to take on the world one little photograph at a time?
And as for the somewhat condescending praise that Stanton has gotten for ‘humanizing’ Africans or Muslims or whatever group he’s with—well, to that, I say it isn’t his fault if some people are so lacking in life experience that it really is a revelation to them that Africa is not a ‘country’ or that they have cities and shopping malls in the Congo. And if people really are at that low a level of understanding, and he can do them a favour and raise them up, even a little? I say that is a favour to the world!
It reminds me of the posts I’ve been making lately on reading with children. The whole key there is keeping everything in balance—you need the serious and heavy work, but you also need the lighthearted ‘just for fun’ stuff that you don;t have to think so hard about. I think news, for many of us, is somewhat the same. Sometimes, you do need the commentary and the analysis and the background provided by a learned person. But sometimes, there is a beautiful simplicity in just saying ‘here is a picture’ and letting it speak for itself, about however small a moment. I do think Stanton’s project is a worthy one. And I hope he gets the respect he deserves for it from others in the journalistic world.