A few facts first
HONY is a blog started by an amateur photographer Brandon Stanton in 2010. He takes around 3 photos a day, ads a caption with a little story about the person being portrayed and post them on his blog, his Facebook page, his Tumblr profile, his Twitter and his Instagram feed. On January 18th he had 11,760,000 followers on Facebook and the next day 20,000 more. He made 2 bestseller books out of these photos, HONY and Little HONY (portraying kids). He also contributed to some fundraising operations and he took a trip to Iran and later started a world tour for the UN millennium goals advocacy.
“Human, all too human”
We all like stories. HONY re-enchants the world by giving a face to social issues. But it is one thing to be entertained by a clever/witty line under a portrait, it is another to be moved by the tragic story of a stranger. Indeed what the latter does is trigger something all too human, voyeurism.
Moreover HONY advocates for humanity, stressing out the fact that we have so much in common. It makes the reader feel good about his own self as it reassures him in his tolerance and sensitivity toward other beings, a bit like an ego boost. Nothing bad in that, it is rather positive to reinvest these values. Nonetheless I feel it reveals something symptomatic of the social media age, where everything is about image and short lived fame. Now it is easier for Stanton to get to talk to people as they know they will have a moment of fame on HONY and thousands of “likes”. Besides, this phenomenon resulted in involuntary PR campaign for some artists as reported by The Independent.
“Held back at the surface”
What HONY does is show us that we are all the same, that independent of race and background we are all humans.This idea of communion around what we share in common is rather similar to the project of Yann Arthus Bertrand, the French photographer, who collected around the world portraits on film.
Very well, but then it discards any complexity. Behind these stories there is a sociological and historical context that is absent in the blog. We are viewing a society, namely New York, through a microscope. I could not agree more with Melyssa Smyth (see her very interesting review here) when she quotes the French philosopher Roland Barthes:
“Everything here, the content and appeal of the pictures, the discourse which justifies them, aims to suppress the determining weight of History: we are held back at the surface of an identity, prevented precisely by sentimentality from penetrating into this ulterior zone of human behaviour where historical alienation introduces some ‘differences’ which we shall here quite simply call ‘injustices’.”
This lack of background context is all the more damageable when taking pictures in countries such as Iran or during natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy. Brandon Stanton went there to give another perspective, complementary to the journalists’. We need to remember that it is a partial vision of the issues, it has nothing to do with a journalist’s work who needs facts and sources and not only hear say. Having the possibility to hear the people’s voice is a progress brought to us by social media… nonetheless we should always keep an eye on the bigger picture and not let ourselves get too overwhelmed by the cacophony of voices.
Looking for meaning
I am not writing for the sake of controversy. I loved HONY at first, then I lost interest and finally I stared getting uncomfortable with the stories told. I was getting into people’s intimacy without the filter of a journalist, a novelist or a film director, may it be fiction or documentary. Before it was fun to discover these short stories every day, quick to read and incidental. As with an omnibus, the reader can hop on/off the story before moving on. The proximity with the person depicted triggers immediate and fleeting emotion… and we have already moved on to the next portrait.
But what is the meaning behind such an accumulation of individual stories? What is the significance for the group collectively? By withdrawing behind neutrality, Brandon Stanton refuses to give a meaning to his work and individuals are swallowed back into the masses.