HONY or PHONY?

We all have our favorite Humans of New York posts. Two of mine, from just the past month, are Halloween shots—one of a little girl dressed like Audrey Hepburn and another of an entire family tagged “Heist.” The kids are dressed as police officers, Mom and Dad are bank robbers, and the baby is a pile of money.

The blog has exploded in popularity since its start in the summer of 2010—its second hardcover book (Little Humans) has just been released, and imitations of the idea have appeared in cities and schools around the world, a notable example being Humans of Princeton. HONY has been featured on everything from The Huffington Post to CBS New York, and its stories have traveled to cities and countries all around the world.

HONY’s appeal is multifaceted. It taps into the part of us that is curious about the backstory of that person we saw on the subway or at the park; it satisfies our interest about that person we pass by who’s wearing a seersucker suit, crazy hat, flamboyant wig, or who just looks interesting. It also reminds us that the people around us may be very different than the first impression they give and that they all have stories to tell.

graphic: Caroline Smith

graphic: Caroline Smith

I recently read about the interactions of Brandon Stanton, the founder of HONY, during his trip to Iran. I was particularly drawn to one post about a man who had always dreamt of living in America. He made it here, only to have his dreams fall apart. Finding work was hard, he tried and failed to get a green card, and eventually he gave up and moved back to Iran.

He asked Brandon not to take his picture in front of his taxi, saying, “It’s a low-class job.”

Brandon replied, “It’s not a low class job. It’s the job of people who take huge risks so their children can be lawyers and surgeons.”

My criticism of HONY is that its popularity has made it more of a tourist attraction and less about the insightful things someone has to say. People actively seek Stanton out with the hopes of being in the blog and receiving their 15 minutes of Internet fame (if it even lasts that long). As a reader, we like to believe that each quote or story is interesting; it reveals some wisdom and makes a connection with us. But do the stories of these people eventually become reduced to a steady stream of click bait? Do their stories hold as much value as they were intended to, or are they turned into a source of entertainment? How much can we really relate to the homeless person on the street who has lost everything?

Another criticism aimed at HONY from a rival blog, Gawker, known for its commentary on prevalent issues and trends, is that the photos turn people into caricatures. “The people Stanton photographs are reduced to whatever decontextualized sentence or three he chooses to use along with their photo,” it wrote.

Turning back to the story of the Iranian cab driver, perhaps this is what the New York blog is lacking—more of the authentic and complicated back-story, and less of the superficial charm.

Yet, in the end, using just a snap of a camera, HONY and the messages it tries to convey have affected and touched me. Princeton can feel like a small bubble sometimes—a lot of us are so much more privileged than the rest of the world. HONY shows us that who we are is not defined by our jobs, our looks, or where we happen to be born, and that under the surface, everyone has something unique to share.

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