Case Study: Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton

 

Brandon Stanton is an American photographer and blogger best know for the ‘Humans of New York’ photographs and stories. This is where he travelled the streets of New York taking portraits of the people and documenting conversations about their lives.

In summer 2010 the initial goal of this project for Brandon Stanton was to photograph 10,000 people on the streets of New York. Two books have been created where the information had been collected in over twenty countries; 1. The Humans of New York, 2. Humans of New York: Stories.

 

Some of the countries include:

  1. Iraq
  2. Iran
  3. Jordan
  4. Uganda
  5. Dr Congo
  6. South Sudan
  7. Kenya
  8. Ukraine
  9. India
  10. Vietnam
  11. Mexico
  12. Jerusalem
  13. Pakistan

 

The Inmate Stories:

“Honestly, if I mess up again, I hope it kills me. Because I don’t want to keep hurting people.”

“This is my fifth time in prison. Every crime I’ve committed has come from my addiction. Best case scenario is I get out of here, rebuild my life, and join the one percent of people who have beaten a meth addiction. Worst case scenario is I become no more than what I am today. And honestly, if I mess up again, I hope it kills me. Because I don’t want to keep hurting people. I’ve cheated my kids out of normal lives. My seventeen-year-old daughter is in a home for teen moms. My twenty-one-year-old son is in jail. My eighteen-year-old daughter is doing OK. She’s got a job at FedEx and goes to college. She hates drugs and thinks the world is a good place and that nobody is out to hurt her. She wants to help me. She wants me to come live with her when I get out. I don’t think that’s a good idea.” (Federal Correctional Complex: Hazelton, West Virginia)

 

 

“It is really tough to say “no” when there are no other options for money. So I agreed.”

“I was working at a nightclub in Honduras, making $4 a night, and some guy tells me that I can make $6,000 in twelve days just by working on a boat. There weren’t any jobs in Honduras. We didn’t have government benefits like you have here. It’s really tough to say ‘no’ when there are no other options for money. So I agreed. They put me on a small fishing boat. We transported cocaine from Colombia to Honduras. My job was to maintain the vessel and help load the cargo. I’ve never done drugs in my life. On our fourth trip, we were stopped in international waters by the US coastguard. We had 986 kilograms of cocaine. That was ten years ago.”

(Federal Correctional Complex: Allenwood, Pennsylvania)

 

 

Syrian Americans:

 

“They kept putting a gun to my head and taking it away”

“I was the only doctor in the area, so when ISIS captured our town, I knew that they would ask me to work for them. We should have left right away. One night five men came to our house. They were wearing masks and they refused to take off their shoes. Their Arabic was not with a Syrian accent. They claimed to be searching for weapons and went from room to room. They knew about me already, because they kept calling me ‘Doctor.’ When they finished searching the house, they arrested my husband. It was a night in January, so it was too cold for them to start their car. The engine kept turning over and over. I thought that maybe a miracle would keep them from taking him. But then I heard the engine start and they drove away. I paced in the street all night. At one point I heard a gunshot in the distance, and I thought for sure they had killed him. I thought it was all my fault. We should have left right away.”

“ISIS needs educated people to support them. None of them finished school. They cannot manage the cities they capture because they have no skills. When they took me to prison, at first they were very aggressive. They kept putting a gun to my head and taking it away. But after a few minutes of this, one of the men began speaking to me in a very nice way. He said: ‘You are an Islamic man. Please, be a good Muslim and help us. We want your wife to open a hospital for us. And we want you to manage it.’ I agreed to everything they asked. I told them I would help. Then the moment they let me go home, we packed our bags and left.”

“We’ve been waiting for two years now. We’ve been through all our interviews. Last week this letter came and said that we’ve been ‘deferred.’ I’m not even sure what that means. We were very truthful about everything. We have nothing left in Syria. I want to continue working as a doctor in America. Here my hands are tied. Refugees are not allowed to work. I don’t have papers. I can’t communicate with anyone. I worked my entire life to become a doctor. I did nothing but study for six years. I didn’t even have a hobby. Now I’m doing nothing. I’m losing hope. I’ve started to wonder if it would have been better for us to go the illegal way across the sea.”

The whole purpose of my trip to Turkey and Jordan was to interview refugees who had been approved for American resettlement. So when this couple showed me the letter saying they’d been ‘deferred,’ I was a bit confused. But I continued the interview anyway. As I learned the rest of the couple’s story, I noticed my UNHCR facilitator typing on her phone. After a few minutes, she came over to me and showed me the screen. It was a text message from the main office. It said: ‘They’ve been approved. Would you care to tell them?’ So it was my great honor to inform this couple that they were going to America. This portrait was taken thirty seconds after they learned the news.

 

“I don’t want the world to think I’m over. I’m still here.”

“My parents were supportive of my education, but they didn’t direct me. My father was a farmer and my mother was a housewife. They did not know much about science. But I was determined to become a scientist through my own personal will. I graduated high school with the third highest scores in all of Syria. I worked construction in the evenings to pay for my school. Even as a teenager, I was being given construction sites to manage. I graduated from university at the top of my class. I was given a scholarship to pursue my PhD. I suffered for my dream. I gave everything. If I had 100 liras, I would spend it on a book. My ultimate goal was to become a great scientist and make a lasting contribution to humanity.”

“Our marriage wasn’t arranged. We married out of love. We met when we were students at university. She was studying law. We built a family together. We were a very modern family. We had good days and bad days and rich days and poor days but we were always together. We ate every meal together and educated our children well. My daughter was studying to be a doctor. My son was the smartest in his school. We were well known in the community. Nobody had a problem with us. We had no affiliation with any party or regime. Everyone loved us, honestly.”

“I built this compound for my family. I saved the money for it, I designed it myself, and I oversaw the construction. The first missile tore through the yellow house and exploded inside the pink house. It was a government anti-personnel missile. They are not supposed to be used in residential areas. Inside were 116 small bombs, and each bomb was filled with needles and shrapnel. The pink house belonged to my brother and his entire family was torn to pieces. The second missile landed in the green house but did not explode. That was my house. If the missile had exploded, I wouldn’t have any children left. But it only destroyed the top floor where my wife and daughter were. Sixteen people died in the attack. Seven were from my family.“

“I was overseeing a project outside the city when the missile hit my house. Nobody was around to help, so my son had to carry the pieces of his mother and sister out of the house. He was fourteen at the time. He was so smart. He was the top of his class. He’s not the same. Right after it happened, he’d write ‘mom’ in his notebook over and over. He’d cry all night long. Two years have passed but he’s still suffering very much. It’s very hard for him to focus. He gets tired very easily. My daughter was in the house too. She still has shrapnel in her neck. We survived but we’re dead psychologically. Everything ended for us that day. That was our destiny. That was our share in life.”

 

Refugee Stories:

“In the ocean we hit a rock, but the captain told us not worry”

“My husband and I sold everything we had to afford the journey. We worked 15 hours a day in Turkey until we had enough money to leave. The smuggler put 152 of us on a boat. Once we saw the boat, many of us wanted to go back, but he told us that anyone who turned back would not get a refund. We had no choice. Both the lower compartment and the deck were filled with people. Waves began to come into the boat so the captain told everyone to throw their baggage into the sea. In the ocean we hit a rock, but the captain told us not to worry. Water began to come into the boat, but again he told us not to worry. We were in the lower compartment and it began to fill with water. It was too tight to move. Everyone began to scream. We were the last ones to get out alive. My husband pulled me out of the window. In the ocean, he took off his life jacket and gave it to a woman. We swam for as long as possible. After several hours he told me he that he was too tired to swim and that he was going to float on his back and rest. It was so dark we could not see. The waves were high. I could hear him calling me but he got further and further away. Eventually a boat found me. They never found my husband.” (Kos, Greece)

 

 

“But what could I do? I had no choice. Then two weeks later she called with even worse news.”

I want to begin this refugee series with a post from the summer of 2014. This is Muhammad, who I first met last year in Iraqi Kurdistan. At the time, he had just fled the war in Syria and was working as a clerk at my hotel. When war broke out, he’d been studying English Literature at the University of Damascus, so his English was nearly perfect. He agreed to work as my interpreter and we spent several days interviewing refugees who were fleeing the advance of ISIS. As is evident from the quote below, I left Muhammad with the expectation that he’d soon be travelling to the United Kingdom with fake papers. I am retelling the story because I have just now reconnected with Muhammad. He will be working again as my interpreter for the next ten days. But the story he told me of what happened since we last met is tragic.

“The fighting got very bad. When I left Syria to come here, I only had $50. I was almost out of money when I got here. I met a man on the street, who took me home, and gave me food and a place to stay. But I felt so ashamed to be in his home that I spent 11 hours a day looking for jobs, and only came back to sleep. I finally found a job at a hotel. They worked me 12 hours a day, for 7 days a week. They gave me $400 a month. Now I found a new hotel now that is much better. I work 12 hours per day for $600 a month, and I get one day off. In all my free hours, I work at a school as an English teacher. I work 18 hours per day, every day. And I have not spent any of it. I have not bought even a single T-shirt. I’ve saved 13,000 Euro, which is how much I need to buy fake papers. There is a man I know who can get me to Europe for 13,000. I’m leaving next week. I’m going once more to Syria to say goodbye to my family, then I’m going to leave all this behind. I’m going to try to forget it all. And I’m going to finish my education.“ (August 2014 : Erbil, Iraq)

“Before leaving for Europe, I went back to Syria to see my family once more. I slept in my uncle’s barn the entire time I was there, because every day the police were knocking on my father’s door. Eventually my father told me: ‘If you stay any longer, they will find you and they will kill you.’ So I contacted a smuggler and made my way to Istanbul. I was just about to leave for Europe when I received a call from my sister. She told me that my father had been very badly beaten by police, and unless I sent 5,000 Euro for an operation, he would die. That was my money to get to Europe. But what could I do? I had no choice. Then two weeks later she called with even worse news. My brother had been killed by ISIS while he was working in an oil field. They found our address on his ID card, and they sent his head to our house, with a message: ‘Kurdish people aren’t Muslims.’ My youngest sister found my brother’s head. This was one year ago. She has not spoken a single word since.”

“For two weeks my tears didn’t stop. Nothing made sense. Why did these things happen to my family? We did everything right. Everything. We were very honest with everyone. We treated our neighbors well. We made no big mistakes. I was under so much pressure at this time. My father was in intensive care, and every day my sisters called and told me that ISIS was getting closer to our village. I went completely crazy. I fainted in the street one day and woke up in the hospital. I gave the rest of my money to a smuggler to help my sisters escape to Iraq. Now I only had 1000 Euro left and I was stranded in Turkey. My father recovered from his operation at this time. He called me and asked how I’d paid for his surgery. I told him that the money came from a friend. He asked if I had made it to Europe. For the first time ever, I lied to my father. I didn’t want him to feel guilty about his surgery. I told him that I was in Europe, and I was safe, and there was nothing to worry about.”

“After I told my father that I’d made it to Europe, I wanted nothing more than to turn that lie into the truth. I found a smuggler and told him my story. He acted like he cared very much and wanted to help me. He told me that for 1000 Euros, he could get me to a Greek Island. He said: ‘I’m not like the other smugglers. I fear God. I have children of my own. Nothing bad will happen to you.’ I trusted this man. One night he called me and told me to meet him at a garage. He put me in the back of a van with twenty other people. There were tanks of gasoline back there, and we couldn’t breath. People started to scream and vomit. The smuggler pulled out a gun, pointed it at us, and said: ‘If you don’t shut up, I will kill you.’ He took us to a beach, and while he prepared the boat, his partner kept the gun pointed at us. The boat was made of plastic and was only three meters long. When we got on it, everyone panicked and the boat started to sink. Thirteen of the people were too scared to go. But the smuggler said that if we changed our minds, he would keep the money, so seven of us decided to go ahead. The smuggler told us that he would guide us to the island, but after a few hundred meters, he jumped off the boat and swam to shore. He told us to keep going straight. The waves got higher and higher and water began to come in the boat. It was completely black. We could see no land, no lights, only ocean. Then after thirty minutes the motor stopped. I knew we all would die. I was so scared that my thoughts completely stopped. The women started crying because none of them could swim. I lied and told them that I could swim with three people on my back. It started to rain. The boat began to turn in circles. Everyone was so frightened that nobody could speak. But one man kept trying to work on the motor, and after a few minutes it started again. I don’t remember how we reached shore. But I remember I kissed all the earth I could find. I hate the sea now. I hate it so much. I don’t like to swim it. I don’t like to look at it. I hate everything about it.”

“The island we landed on was called Samothrace. We were so thankful to be there. We thought we’d reached safety. We began to walk toward the police station to register as refugees. We even asked a man on the side of the road to call the police for us. I told the other refugees to let me speak for them, since I spoke English. Suddenly two police jeeps came speeding toward us and slammed on the brakes. They acted like we were murderers and they’d been searching for us. They pointed guns at us and screamed: ‘Hands up!’ I told them: ‘Please, we just escaped the war, we are not criminals!’ They said: ‘Shut up, Malaka!’ I will never forget this word: ‘Malaka, Malaka, Malaka.’ It was all they called us. They threw us into prison. Our clothes were wet and we could not stop shivering. We could not sleep. I can still feel this cold in my bones. For three days we had no food or water. I told the police: ‘We don’t need food, but please give us water.’ I begged the commander to let us drink. Again, he said: ‘Shut up, Malaka!’ I will remember this man’s face for the rest of my life. He had a gap in his teeth so he spit on us when he spoke. He chose to watch seven people suffer from thirst for three days while they begged him for water. We were saved when they finally they put us on a boat and sent us to a camp on the mainland. For twelve days we stayed there before walking north. We walked for three weeks. I ate nothing but leaves. Like an animal. We drank from dirty rivers. My legs grew so swollen that I had to take off my shoes. When we reached the border, an Albanian policeman found us and asked if we were refugees. When we told him ‘yes,’ he said that he would help us. He told us to hide in the woods until nightfall. I did not trust this man, but I was too tired to run. When night came, he loaded us all into his car. Then he drove us to his house and let us stay there for one week. He bought us new clothes. He fed us every night. He told me: ‘Do not be ashamed. I have also lived through a war. You are now my family and this is your house too.’”

“After one month, I arrived in Austria. The first day I was there, I walked into a bakery and met a man named Fritz Hummel. He told me that forty years ago he had visited Syria and he’d been treated well. So he gave me clothes, food, everything. He became like a father to me. He took me to the Rotary Club and introduced me to the entire group. He told them my story and asked: ‘How can we help him?’ I found a church, and they gave me a place to live. Right away I committed myself to learning the language. I practiced German for 17 hours a day. I read children’s stories all day long. I watched television. I tried to meet as many Austrians as possible. After seven months, it was time to meet with a judge to determine my status. I could speak so well at this point, that I asked the judge if we could conduct the interview in German. He couldn’t believe it. He was so impressed that I’d already learned German, that he interviewed me for only ten minutes. Then he pointed at my Syrian ID card and said: ‘Muhammad, you will never need this again. You are now an Austrian!”

 

 

Brandon Stanton has not only documented these people’s lives through photographic media but he has taken personal documentation to go with those photographs, so that they hols identification a s to what emotion is being experienced within the image. He has created his own genre of photography with his two stage documentary style, that also has a huge internet based audience via social media due to his blog work. He creates a direct connection with the subject and their background and so does the viewer. This creates a much more personal aspect to his work.

It is said that once the people agree to be photographed, he subtly positions them on a stoop, crouches down, reels off a few shots. Next comes the critical task of getting a quote that will accompany the photo when it appears online. He begins with an obvious question:

Q. What’s the worst thing you ever saw happen in the kitchen?

A. “A guy’s face caught on fire.”

Next comes the not-so-obvious follow-up. Stanton wonders whether they laughed.

A. “We did,” one chef volunteers, “after he went to the hospital and we knew he was OK.” [2]

The series seems to document peoples struggles, he has aimed to document the rough periods within their lives i.e. refugees, Syrian Americans and prisoners stories. I am of the impression that these stories hold more of an impact with the story to accompany them. They hold more personal value and possibly emotions that many people viewing the images can relate to. This is a new style of documentary photography that allows for a more personal experience with the people in them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

[1] HUMANS OF NEW YORK, (2016). About: Humans of New York. [Online] Available from: http://www.humansofnewyork.com/about                                                                       [Accessed: 02 May 2016]

[2] Kaplan, M. (2013). The Man Behind Humans of New York: Brandon Stanton. American Photo. [Online] Available from: http://www.americanphotomag.com/man-behind-humans-new-york-brandon-stanton                                                                                  [Accessed: 02 May 2016]

[3] THE CULTURE TRIP, (2016). Brandon Stanton: The Man Behind Humans of New York. [Online] Available from: http://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/new-york/articles/brandon-stanton-the-man-behind-humans-of-new-york/                   [Accessed: 02 May 2016]

 

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