// essays //
But, what about the humans of New York?
Ethan J. Herenstein
 (he isn’t asking for money, and he isn’t going to beat the shit out of me in broad daylight, that’s for sure. But if push comes to shove, I can take him, bad back and all)
 Don’t worry; you’re in good company. When I told my grandmother about this project, she remarked: “Humans of New York? That sounds creepy.” And in truth, she isn’t entirely wrong: the term “human,” I believe, functions in an odd but undeniably valuable way in the scope of HONY’s mission. “Human,” with its taxonomical undertones, is a scientific word used to classify our species in context of, and in distinction to, other species and organisms. That is to say, by the very nature of your biological composition (and in virtue of nothing else), you are a human. Smart or dumb, handsome or homily, kind or cruel, gleeful or depressed–you are a human being if (and only if) you qua your biological make-up meet a set of objective, rarely blurred criteria. Think about it: there are few cases where the question of who is a human is one that is up for serious debate (the abortion objection notwithstanding); for the most part we know quite intuitively who is a human–and who or what is not. To label someone a “human,” then, (as HONY does, at least implicitly, in each of its portraits), is to say nothing at all about the type of person that one is. It is, in a very literal sense, the least judgmental classification that we can apply to others; related to this, it is also, in a blaringly obvious sense, the most universal of classifications, something that we (humans) all–necessarily–share. Humans of New York, from the very first word of its title, clues us in as to what it’s all about: strip away our insecurities and our personas, our prejudices and our unquestioned convictions, and all that’s left is our deep similarities–our shared humanity.
 If cynicism were called for here, I would probably allude to the fact that, by Stanton’s very own admission, two out of every three humans he approaches rejects the impromptu photo-shoot/therapy session. It seems, therefore, that the portraits of HONY––and the invaluable, intimate, universal messages each contains––do not capture all of the humans of New York, but only a certain self-selecting group of humans who agree to having their picture taken by a stranger in the first place.
 Forgetting for just a moment natural shyness, which of course is certainly at play when a stranger starts probing into the wells of my personal life, there is another reason why avoiding inquisitive strangers is not only an understandable course of action but a judicious one as well: said inquisitive stranger might also be a murderer, and you just don’t know that he’s not. And, as I always say, if a person asking you questions might be a serial killer, then answering his questions (and posing for a street portrait so that he has a record of your face, to wit) is probably a bad idea.
 Humans of the World (HOW)?
 This explication could certainly be a whole lot clearer, but I wasn't lying when I said that I don't know anything about QP. If you're looking to get some hard facts on the unobservability of quantum particles, then you're looking in the wrong place. Go open a textbook or something.
The following is a non-exhaustive list of the many things offered to (and often spurned by) me on the streets of Manhattan: an ego-check, marijuana, an ass whooping, a soul-saving lesson on the invalidity of Judaism vis a vis Christ’s supersession, drunken chortles, a once-in-a-lifetime-but-really-all-too-common-chance to unlock the “fibonaccian riddle that is the Metronome” in Union Square, sex, a word of advice, the-all-too-common-but-maybe-just-maybe-once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to bring mashiach right now, charming grins, and a “go fuck yourself.” To almost every stranger, I respond in one of two ways: frozen incredulity or fight-or-flight fear. Why is he talking to me?  What does she really want from me? And, the truth is, it doesn’t really matter what the approaching stranger wants, or even how much they want it, what I need is clear: to get the fuck away. Now.
I must be crazy. Why must a kind gesture pose an existential threat? Fine, the middle-aged prostitute—I’m probably justified in my hesitance to engage with her. But the soft-spoken, tracksuit-wearing, cane-wielding, combover-sporting elderly man who exuberantly offers to explain Union Square’s (headache-inducing) Metronome? By any stretch of the imagination, he has no ulterior motives; maybe he wants to talk; maybe he is lonely, bored; maybe his great-uncle designed the towering digital clock and maybe it just brightens his day whenever he gets the chance to matter-of-factly unveil his impressive family tree. And maybe if I stopped treating every stranger in the streets of Manhattan as contagion to be avoided I would connect with this man. Maybe he doesn’t have to be a strangerif only I could break down that wall myself.
The following is a non-exhaustive list of the many things complete strangers have offered to Brandon Stanton, creator of the uber-popular photo-blog Humans of New York, on the streets of Manhattan: secrets, feelings, empathy, friendship, honesty, humor, spunk, rudeness, hubris, modesty, travesty, dreams, fears, reservations, time, gratitude, friendship. In a word, people––those very same strangers whom I walk right past without even a first, never mind a second glance––connect and open up to Brandon Stanton. Each and every day. All across New York City. In front of a camera, which pictures are then shared with the world. Where I see (and ignore) face-less, story-less strangers, Humans of New York reveals … humans: lovers, enemies, brothers, coworkers, caretakers, teachers, fisherwomen, real-live-three-dimensional-people –– who are then viewed on small, flat screens the world over.
In the off chance that my grandmother is amongst the readers of this essay, let’s take a brief step back. If you are not one of the (now) 9,260,361 followers of HONY on facebook, or one of the many who have purchased the instant #1 New York Times bestselling book of the same name, then perhaps you are feeling lost: how does Humans of New York work? What is it?
Here’s the short of it: armed with a Nikon camera, Brandon Stanton, a thirty-something, former bond trader from Chicago, roams the streets of New York not avoiding strangers but seeking them out. “Can I take your picture?” he asks just about anyone who catches his attention, which, by the way, must be easily caught as many of the humans on HONY appear, at first glance at least, to be plain, not strange in the slightest; decked out, say, in a casual pair of jeans, a black t-shirt, and some worn-in brown boat shoes. It's as if he's been sitting on that park bench every day for 30 years, thinking about all types of ordinary things, the kind of things which regular people––not people whose faces are studied by millions of people across the globe, whose stories are commented upon by the thousands and identified with by utter strangers––think about.
Then Brandon talks to him (Figure 1), asks a few eye-roll-worthy, privacy-invading questions like “what has been the saddest moment of your life?” and all of a sudden this guy's story becomes irresistible and relatable and tragic and uplifting, all at the same time, and it totally makes sense after hearing about his life why Brandon chose him out of all the humans of New York: his story is remarkable, and it deserves to be shared. But then Brandon approaches another ordinary stranger, and this new subject (Fig. 2) also provides perspective –– one which we would all do well to adopt. And then another human (Fig. 3) proves the cliché that with hard work anything is possible and yet another (Fig. 4) seems like he could teach you a thing or two about growing up. The point is: every stranger has got a story worth hearing –– if only we knew to listen.
A heart-warming message, no? I mean, it even bears repeating, for the sake of emphasis if nothing else: every stranger has got a story — every stranger is human, just like you and me. The thing is, it isn’t always so easy to extract story from stranger. Humans aren’t always so quick to share their feelings with their closest and dearest friends, never mind a stranger who’s asking you to pose while prodding into your long dormant daddy issues. But Brandon Stanton has (or maybe as I make my way to an important part of this essay’s thesis I should say “had”) a peculiar combination of gift and circumstance, which together allowed him to expose the human inside the stranger.
Brandon Stanton’s gift and circumstance: if you’ve never seen a picture of the human behind Humans of New York then humor me with a brief thought experiment: what do you think he looks like? How do you picture his face? Posture? Try imagining his voice, his tone, his wardrobe. I’d be interested to hear what you pictured, but was it anything close to this? (Fig. 5) Because let’s be honest: he is the world’s most approachable man. Soft spoken, casually dressed, Mid-Western, backwards baseball cap, running sneakers, tall and well built but not intimidatingly so–the list goes on. Brandon Stanton, by all appearances, is entirely unspectacular, and his trademark request–can I take your picture?–is nothing more than a normal nuisance on the streets of Manhattan. Approached by this ordinary and unassuming human, people open up, let down their guards, pose for a picture, answer his penetrating questions–and then go their separate ways.
But things have begun to change. With nearly 10 million followers and enough social capital to convince the UN to send him on a worldwide photography trip (the unstated goal of which might very well be to bring world peace), Brandon Stanton is no longer an average human but a celebrity. He is recognizable, if not by face then certainly by blog. Now, when Brandon Stanton approaches, he’s got luggage, he’s got a reputation. He’s no longer a quirky dude asking for a picture; now he’s That Guy Behind HONY, here to uncover the essential spirit of absolute strangers in just a jiffy. He is losing his anonymity, and with it, his ability to capture the humans of New York.
Now, when some people see him approach, they don’t let their guard down—they put it up. They prepare. They rehearse. They try and figure out how they are unique, why Mr. HONY has selected them from amongst the sea of quirky personalities in NYC. Stepping out into the streets of Manhattan without an easily solilquizable story in tow is a danger–something that actually worries (Fig. 6) some humans. And if you’ve got an eye-catching outfit or a unique, skin-deep quirk, then on some level it’s entirely possible that you expect (Fig. 7) to be stopped by HONY. Many of the humans of New York have stopped becoming humans; they have become actors. (Fig. 8)
I am no expert in quantum physics. In fact, such a turn of phrase belies my true inexperience with QP: I know next to nothing about the field. But of the little I do know, I know this: that there is no such thing as passive observation–that is, the very act of observation impacts the observed. And though QP might apply only to sub-atomic particles, I think the theory rings true with humans as well. By observing New Yorkers, Brandon Stanton has not captured but changed the spirit of New York.
The success of HONY might very well lead to its downfall. HONY has taught (or maybe reminded) us that every stranger has got a story. But for how much longer will HONY be able to extract authentic stories from strangers? At what point will HONY’s fame grow to such a level, become such a widespread phenomenon, that anyone with a camera and a few questions will be HONYing and that anyone asked by a stranger to pose will be acutely aware that they are in the process of being HONYed, that their casual, off-the-cuff answers will be seen and scrutinized by millions?
I avoid strangers; Brandon Stanton doesn’t. And for a good few years, I would use HONY as a window into the lives of strangers, whom I could never myself approach. Symbiosis at its best: I gave HONY a facebook follower and in return it gave me strangers–real, unprocessed, organic humans. But what will I do when HONY is no longer able to hold up its end of the bargain, when HONY’s portraits say more about Brandon Stanton’s success than they do about the humans of New York? Because, rest assured, the trend is inexorable: one cannot simply regain anonymity; what seeps into social consciousness cannot simply seep back out. Under the prodding camera of Brandon Stanton, the humans of New York have begun to squirm. They still pose, to be sure, and they still smile, shrug, share, and wax poetic about all sorts of things, but just take a look at this portrait (Fig. 9) and tell me that the spirit of HONY–the idea that we can capture the essence of an utter stranger simply with a portrait and a few words –– remains intact. It’s a heart-warming photo, and one that exemplifies some admirable New Yorker attributes; but Stanton doesn’t just capture this moment–he causes it too. Literally. His presence, though perhaps absent from the actual photo, is conspicuously felt. It’s a beautiful scene, but it’s not real. And I'm scared that as Humans of New York continues to grow at incredible rates, the real humans of New York will become harder and harder to find.
 As it happens, I have a very difficult time turning my back on a theological exchange—even if said exchange might very well spoil my day. Why exactly my stranger-aversion seems to disintegrate in the face of a conversation about the merits and/or demerits of God, religion or capital-T Truth (Many thanks to David Foster Wallace for this gem of a phrase.) is anybody’s guess, but I suspect the reason cuts to the heart of this very essay: there is something universal and uniting and intimate about the “big talks” that forces us to see the person inside the stranger.
 Or, during my more insidious bouts of cynicism: “Why is he talking to me?
 HONY (rhymes with Pony, sounds like lonely—oh, and it also rhymes with phony. Make of that what you will).
 As of this writing, the HONY facebook page, which page along with tumbler serves as HONY’s most active repository for photos, has accrued 9,260,121 followers (more than 200 of which, I’m proud to announce, are facebook friends of mine.)
 I’m far from the quickest writer, but in the, say, 15 minutes that have elapsed since I first dutifully recorded HONY’s followers (way back in FN 5), the page has gained 240 followers. That’s 16 new followers a minute, just to give you a sense of the ever-growing popularity of HONY.
 All of this isn't to say that Brandon Stanton doesn't run into his fair share of, for lack of a better word, weirdos. He does. And there is certainly no shortage of crazy people roaming the streets of Manhattan. But, part of what makes HONY so damn successful is that the experienced consumer of HONY knows intuitively not to judge a human by his outfit or hairdo or pastime. Brandon Stanton has photographed some normal-looking people who have, upon opening their mouths, revealed themselves to be lunatics; and he's photographed some crazy-looking people who have turned out to be about as regular as you can imagine. The difference between crazy and normal is not as big as we often imagine–especially on the streets of New York.
 Facebook follower update: 9,265,143, for those keeping track at home. That’s roughly another 5,000 followers who have joined in the past few hours. While you’re reading this footnote, it might pay to make an important though somewhat peripheral point: aside from the pleasure I reap from appending these footnotes all across this essay, there is in fact a more utilitarian explanation for my footnote fetish. Part of HONY’s appeal, I believe, is its ability to compact a human being into a tidy, prepackaged, self-contained unit: everything you might ever want to know about a particular subject is right there in front of you. Picture, quote, witticism, end scene. You hardly need to move your eyes, let alone scroll down the page to appreciate HONY––what’s there is there is there. Like most everything in social media, HONY’s propensity to be consumed in a single glance is most certainly related to the sheer amount of glances it attracts. And that’s great; I mean, no one who logs onto facebook for some social networking (or mind-numbing procrastination) has any interest in parsing some dense literary essay. But when facebook becomes collectively our most visited website then its linearity ceases to be the exception to life’s randomness and becomes the rule. OK, enough of this abstract argumentation; here’s what I'm trying to say: I'm using these footnotes as a foil to facebook’s (and HONY’s) linearity—there is something rewarding about jumping back and forth, up and down, about actually working to appreciate something in more than a single frame.
// ETHAN J. HERENSTEIN is a junior at Columbia College and is Deputy Literary & Arts editor for The Current. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos courtesy of www.humansofnewyork.com, www.networkintellect.com, and www.hub.aa.com.