What’s So F#@*ing Great about HONY?

Curiosity and empathy drive design for good

Photo: Brandon Stanton http://www.humansofnewyork.com/

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 on Time 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 campaign asking 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.

Going Global

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.

“Throughout rural Pakistan, illiterate and desperate laborers are tricked into accepting small loans in exchange for agreeing to work at brick kilns for a small period of time,” Brandon wrote in one of the posts.

“But due to predatory terms, their debt balloons, growing larger as time goes on, with no possibility of repayment, until these laborers are condemned to work for the rest of their lives for no compensation,” he wrote. “If the laborer dies, the debt is passed on to his or her children.”

Within hours of Fatima’s and the laborers’ stories being shared online, people around the world wanted to know how they could help. HONY set up a fundraising page for people to donate and, in just four days, collected more than $2 million.

The overwhelmed, grateful Fatima has vowed to continue working to end this form of slavery in Pakistan.

The Power of Story

In essence, what Brandon is doing is not new. He follows in the footsteps of famous photographers like Elliot Erwitt, Lee Friedlander, and Dorothea Lange — artists who told human stories with their images. Except that he didn’t set out seeking fame. He wasn’t even a trained photographer. Brandon took to photographing people on the street as a reaction to losing his job as a bond trader in Chicago. An introvert in a city where he didn’t know anybody, he used this to practice social skills.

In five years, Brandon and HONY have had far greater impact than many mission-driven nonprofits. Perhaps not being burdened by organizational structure or convention frees him to act more quickly. And today’s global connectedness enables the rapid response from his fans.

HONY’s success as a force for good may seem serendipitous, but in reality, it’s a product of design. Brandon pursued his passion like a good designer would—with an open mind, curiosity, and empathy for his subjects. And the result is HONY, an artifact that informs and transforms us with its power of story.

If Brandon’s story has inspired you and would like to support his mission consider buying his book. Book sales are his only source of income. Everything else, including the UN trip, has been done pro bono.

And recommend this story! ;-)

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