I, like many other people, almost five million other people in fact, follow the very popular photo blog Humans of New York on Facebook. For those who are unfamiliar, the blog features stunning portraits of 5,000 New Yorkers by photographer Brandon Stanton. Each picture is captioned with a quirky description or quotes about the backstories, sentiments, and opinions of the subjects at hand.
I find the photos to be beautiful. I love the composition of each portrait and I truly find Stanton to be an amazing photographer. You may therefore be wondering what could possibly be my problem with such a beautiful site, featuring a diverse group of people from different neighborhoods around New York.
Firstly, I find that Stanton often posts comments about his subjects that reduce them and reinforce stereotypes. For example, on one photo of an Egyptian woman was captioned, “She’s from Egypt. Which is fitting, because she looks like a perfect mix of desert and dance club.” I find it problematic to take a single individual and reduce them to a stereotype, as it only reinforces people’s perceptions of a whole group of individuals. Simply, that a striking picture of one person cannot represent their ethnicity, heritage, economic class, etc.
Not to mention that some of his captions are simply sexist. The caption of one photo of a young teenage couple reads. “This is how a hunter looks when he’s posing with a trophy deer.” I believe that artists have the responsibility to promote images, perspectives, and perceptions that are positive, thought-provoking, and, to be frank, not discriminatory or degrading. When it comes to a project like Humans of New York, Stanton has the responsibility to propagate positive perceptions, especially with almost five million followers.
Lastly, I have the biggest problem with Stanton’s portrayal of those of lower socioeconomic statuses. Often times, Stanton portrays New Yorkers below the poverty line, as well as homeless and displaced individuals. While never judging these individuals, Stanton often includes a backstory. A beautiful photograph of people who are struggling should not be someone’s five-minute break from work. They should not be gawked at or pitied at through a photo. These people do not exist to educate or teach others about the hardships of life. They are not forms of entertainment. Although I do not believe that this is Stanton’s goal, I do think that these posts end up in the propagation of a very problematic attitude of voyeurism that can be quite invasive and even offensive.