Bill O’Reilly, aside from being a conservative TV personality, is also an author, and recently published a book called “Killing Jesus.” This book, perhaps unsurprisingly given the reach of its author, quickly shot to number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. A few weeks ago, though, O’Reilly’s book was replaced at the top of the charts by another book: a book written by an amateur photographer, distributed by a small publisher, and filled with pictures of average people.
The book, written by Brandon Stanton, is called “Humans of New York,” and, as the name suggests, is filled with pictures of regular New Yorkers, taken on the streets. The book came out of a wildly popular website, Tumblr and Facebook, all called Humans of New York, all of which post pictures on a daily basis — and which have nearly one million collective followers.
Why So Loved?
So, why are the pictures so popular? Because they’re not just pictures, they’re stories– and the stories are fascinating. The stories, told via photo caption, aren’t very long, just one or two questions from Stanton and the subjects’ answers; sometimes they’re not even there, for example with pictures of little kids or pets. But what makes them special is their honesty; every few pictures comes a story that makes you stop in your tracks and stare. A man sitting a bench in a tough neighborhood talks about how a car accident derailed his major-league baseball ambitions; a tough-looking smoker talks about being outed by a coach in his freshman year of college; a young woman shopping admits that her boyfriend cheated on her and had a child with someone else.
The stories go on and on – death, life, illness, recovery, absent parents, parents holding their children, heartbreak, love, homelessness, the kindness of strangers – but what’s most amazing about them is their incredible beauty and hopefulness. Many of the stories end on high notes, and even those that don’t offer the potential for redemption. This, to me, explains why Humans of New York is so popular – because it allows people to see others who look normal, just like those we pass in the street every day, as people filled with joy and pain and wisdom. The world of Humans of New York (or HONY, for short) is a magical one in which everyone has something to offer and everyone is worthy of being photographed. And the most magical thing about it is that it’s real.
Of course, taking pictures of a wide slice of New York life does not come without occasional conflict. Pictures of homeless people, of little girls in hijabs, a story about someone whose girlfriend recently aborted their child, a picture of police officers standing over the (sheet-draped) dead body of a woman who committed suicide by jumping out of a building, stories of racism – all cause controversy, and it’s interesting to look at the reactions to them to see which images push people’s buttons. The controversial posts are what might be expected, but what I find interesting is that most of the time on a controversial post the majority of comments, especially the popular ones, are positive; it’s far more common to see a comment telling off the haters than to actually see a hateful comment.
Another great thing about HONY is that, by taking pictures of real people, it challenges assumptions. One of my favorite photos is of a straight couple sitting on a bench. The writing that goes with their picture is a quotation from one of them, who says “We both study architecture.” When asked who’s better, the person responds, “Well, that’s hard to say. But I definitely have the bigger ego.” The reader is left wondering which member of the couple made the statement – and continues to wonder, since no more information is given. The same applies to pictures with lesbian or gay couples, even possible lesbian or gay couples (such as a backlit photo at night in which it’s not clear the gender of the two people shown), or photos of amazing outfits worn by people who don’t fit neatly into stereotypical gender boxes.
When most people see a homeless person on the street, they just walk by. When they see an LGB couple or a worker unloading boxes from a truck, it’s easy to judge or to look away. But there’s something about a picture on Tumblr or Facebook that makes people stop, look, and listen – and once they have, they’re captivated by the story.
However, HONY has a direct impact that goes further than simply expanding people’s perspectives or brightening their days. Every once in a while, an opportunity to donate comes along, and so far, those opportunities have been taken by thousands of people.
The first fundraiser was in August of 2013, and raised money to send underprivileged kids from Bedford-Stuyvesent to a YMCA camp for the summer. The next was to help a little boy named Rumi, who was photographed selling trinkets, “saving up for a horse.” Since his parents could not afford to buy or house an actual horse in New York City, Stanton posted a request for donations to send him to horse camp for a week; later, he posted pictures of the boy playing with his favorite animals in the world and a quotation from his mother saying that the experience had made him “a different person.”
The most recent fundraiser was to raise money to help with adoption fees for a family trying to bring their son home from Ethiopia, someone Stanton had met while he was working on a TV piece about HONY. This fundraiser aimed to raise $26,000 for adoption fees in just one day – a huge goal, but one that was met in just one hour. And more than that, by the end of the campaign the fundraiser had made almost $84,000.
What Can Nonprofits Learn?
Any campaign that raises $84,000 in a single day surely has lessons for other organizations, especially those wishing to expand their social media presences.
So what does HONY do that other organizations don’t? HONY’s advantage is its ability to connect the people in its photos to the people who see them at home through the arresting visuals, then by pairing them with a story that makes people feel close to the subjects. Plenty of organizations are already doing this, of course. Everyone’s seen the images of young cancer patients, starving people after disasters, people “before and after” life-saving surgeries. However, no one has done it before quite to the extent that HONY, or one of its many copycat organizations around the nation, has.
Luckily for all denizens of the internet, Brandon Stanton has no plans to stop any time soon.
Photo credit: Brandon Stanton, Humans of New York