What's So Great About Humans Of New York?

BySasha Patkin

When street portraits from a project called “Humans of New York” started popping up on my Facebook newsfeed a year or two ago, I was busily pursuing a degree in fine-art photography. I can’t remember exactly when I first became aware of the project, but as the page gained in popularity and more and more of my friends — some of them not even located in the New York area — began “liking” the photos, I couldn’t help but wonder what made the blog so popular. 

"What was the happiest moment of your life?"

As a formally educated photographer, I can attest to the fact that HONY’s portraits are generally well-composed and technically sound. If not exactly earth-shattering or revolutionary by highbrow “art” standards, they are certainly aesthetically inoffensive — and the diverse, colorful New York they depict is unquestionably one I’m in support of. But there are over eight million people in New York City, and nearly as many dabblers in street photography. True, not all of these dabblers own professional cameras or promote their photography on Facebook, but why is HONY approaching one million likes on Facebook, with nearly all of its photographs regularly receiving 10-30,000 "likes"?

"What was the happiest day of your life?"

So, yes — HONY’s photographs are OK. But HONY's approach to street photography is superb. Stanton has more seemingly personal and life-altering conversations with strangers than many of us ever do — and simply by stopping people, talking to them, and taking an interest in their lives. While maintaining an upbeat and supportive tone, Stanton does not whitewash his picture of New York. He includes images of people fighting very real battles with poverty, substance abuse, and mental illness. He celebrates the people he photographs — not just for their successes, but for their struggles — and for their humanity.