If you haven’t been living under a rock, you would have come across the Humans of New York (HONY) phenomenon by now.
What initially started in 2010 as a photo blog of everyday New Yorkers, or as the man behind HONY, Brandon Stanton, calls it a “photographic census”, is now a global force for good.
The simple idea behind HONY was to paint a picture of a place that was different than the one portrayed by the media. When real people from all walks share their life stories, a more nuanced but telling narrative starts to emerge.
Stories on HONY range from heart-wrenching to hopeful, inspiring to enlightening; each one stirs the human spirit. In this multi-colored tapestry, we see the commonalities among our differences. As Brandon himself observed, “I think the similarities I’ve noticed are the aspirations of people. It seems that everywhere I go, people want the same things — security, education, family.”
The stories are as moving as they are varied.
It’s no wonder HONY has over 15 million followers on Facebook and 4 million on Instagram, and that Brandon has become a media darling — invited to make appearances on BBC News, CNN and even earning a spot onTime magazine’s 30 Under 30.
Brandon could have very easily cashed in on his celebrity like a Kardashian, but instead he has chosen to do more. Much more.
Ironically, the tipping point for Brandon and HONY came after an attempt by fashion label DKNY to use his images without his consent. After being publicly outed by him and HONY fans, DKNY agreed to donate $25,000 to Brandon’s local YMCA in Bedford-Stuyvesant which was in dire need of $100,000 to send 300 inner-city kids to summer camp. To make up the difference, Brandon started an Indiegogo campaignasking his fans to chip in — and they did to the tune of another $103,000.
After Hurricane Sandy, Brandon partnered with Tumblr to raise nearly $320,000 to help the relief effort. He also played a critical role in a successful campaign to squash controversial renovation plans to the iconic New York Public Library.
Another HONY-fueled fundraiser generated $1.4 million, creating a life-changing opportunity for students from the Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn to visit Harvard University. It began with this conversation Brandon had with Vidal, a middle-schooler:
“Who’s influenced you the most in your life?”
“My principal, Ms. Lopez.”
“How has she influenced you?”
“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”
Clearly, Brandon recognizes the power of his platform and was willing and able to put it to full use.
Last year, the United Nations asked Brandon to do for distressed countries what he has been able to do for New York — put a human face to their challenges. In August 2014, he set off on a 50 day, 12+ country tour to create awareness about the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.
The trip, which began in Iraq, took him through Jordan, Uganda, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan, and into Ukraine, Iran, Pakistan, and India, and perhaps other countries along the way. The media tends to portray these nations through a single lens of oppression, strife, and suffering. HONY has shown us that beyond these conditions, there are heartwarming tales of hope and resiliency — painting a softer, more complete picture.
The highlight of this world tour was Brandon’s visit to Pakistan — a country we’ve come to know mainly for terrorism, political corruption, and natural disasters.
Amidst this landscape, Brandon witnessed and shared with the world a more holistic view. Picturesque countrysides, lively markets, and vibrant city life — all the while encountering people, many with smiling faces, wanting the same things we all want: security, freedom, community.
Then we were introduced to the heart-breaking tale of Syeda Ghulam Fatima, an activist working to eradicate what’s known as bonded labor in Pakistan.