Photography, Integrity and Humans of New York
Bag News Editor-at-Large, Meg Handler, wrote an insightful piece on the “gay schoolboy” photo taken by Brandon Stanton and featured on the ever-popular Humans of New York. The photo had already exploded in popularity on Facebook when 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton chimed in with words of encouragement along with other celebrities including George Takei and Ellen Degeneres.
Handler notes that while Stanton doesn’t consider himself a journalist, the enticing quote and provocative photo generate a slew of ambiguity:
What is the context of this quote? What was the rest of the conversation? Was it responsible (and/or ethical) for Stanton to post a photo of a child this young saying he’s “a homosexual?” Where were this child’s parents? Who, what, where and when are the basic questions a photo, published in public, at least one with this type of import, must address in its content and in its caption. None of these questions can be answered hereby just looking at the photograph and the quote. Moreover, a quote is not a caption. This is a very important distinction for the audience to be able to make.
She further quotes Stanton’s self-professed apolitical stance, “I purposely and pointedly try to avoid infusing any meaning in the work.” Yet the timing is anything but apolitical given that gender rights and gay marriage are having a once-in-a-generation moment, and the post’s proximity to Independence Day.
I have argued before that HONY’s success has little to do with the quality of photography, which is passable but not outstanding. What he lacks as a photographer, however, he more than makes up for with his masterful storytelling. He knows how to massage a sentence or two into something that tugs on your heart strings.
His following on Facebook exceeds the population of New York City, and thus he commands a significant voice in the community. He has, in the past, used this sway for good like when he helped to raise over $1.2m for a Brooklyn school. He has done work for the UN. He is by all accounts a decent guy.
But let’s call a spade a spade. HONY is like a movie loosely based on real life. He is going for the sound bite, even when the sound bite wasn’t really said.
Last year, one of our senior programmers, Peter, was photographed for HONY. The quotation that accompanied his portrait read as:
“I’m trying to figure out what direction I should be moving in.”
“What direction are you currently moving in?”
“I’m not sure I’m moving.”
Compelling perhaps, but Peter said of the experience, “…the quote, while punchy, does not quite ring true for me removed from it’s [sic] context (Brandon asked me about 6 questions before getting to ‘What’s something you struggle with’).”
It would be sensationalist to label Stanton as lacking integrity because I can think of few photographers who have so relentlessly pursued a personal project with verve and passion. His success is a clear indication of his mastery of social media, and he is doing good work for the community.
But with great power comes great responsibility, and in the case of the gay schoolboy, I’m not sure he has done the child a favor. If the child was merely a representation of all gay children, it would be one thing. But this is a recognizable boy who looks no older than 10 years old. Should a child who hasn’t even reached puberty yet be labeled for his sexual preference in front of 13 million followers and the millions more that saw the image through the media without any context for the quote? There are implications here that go far beyond a “post of the day.”
As a point of contrast, let me share with you the work of Gabriela Herman. “The Kids” chronicles children of LGBT parents, and was inspired by Herman’s own struggle as a child of a gay mother. “The Kids” is also what HONY might look like with great photography and journalistic standards.
Photo by Gabriela Herman
After five years of churning out Humans of New York, perhaps it’s time for an evolution of the methodology. Here’s hoping Stanton remembers there are humans behind the photos — not just a set of digital portraits served with a side of digestible quotes.