HONYs appeal to sentiment masks true issues

In January, the very popular Humans of New York often abbreviated as HONY came under serious scrutiny. Humans of New York was started in 2010 by a blog which has expanded and is published on Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and is now even available in a print format. Even St. Olaf has a Facebook page entitled Humans of St. Olaf that was inspired by HONY. Humans of New York is a collection of photos of people found on the streets of New York City, accompanied by short snippets of interviews with the subject of the photograph or some commentary. Photographer Brandon Stanton, the founder of HONY, takes all of the pictures and writes the commentaries himself. An editorial by Melissa Smyth, an associate editor for warscapes.com, set forth several grievances with regard to Stanton’s blog.

Smyth mainly criticized HONY for making a superficial appeal to the reader’s sentiment instead of addressing any substantive problems on subjects like racism and sexism. Smyth cites examples of photos featuring interracial interactions that bring a “fuzzy feeling” to the reader instead of a realistic representation of the diverse challenges faced in human existence. The project also received criticism from Smyth due to Stanton’s operation of the project. Stanton takes all photos and conducts all interviews, thus HONY is all seen through Stanton’s lens. The only people that Stanton photographs are those who he deems approachable, and therefore, the process is not truly random.

There is a disparity in Smyth’s expectations and Stanton’s aims. What Smyth wants is a cultural medium through which problems like racism and income inequality can be addressed through productive sorts of empathy. With the HONY project, Stanton seems to share no such aspirations in either current or past interviews. Stanton sees HONY as a collection of photos documenting people of interest and giving small vignettes of the human experience. There is a place for art that isn’t serious commentary, and Smyth does not acknowledge it. Smyth criticizes HONY as a form of escapism for people who want to ignore Ferguson and ISIS. While permanent ignorance and isolation from contemporary issues is not good, the occasional consumption of media that isn’t a serious dialogue or video of some wartime atrocity is necessary.

However, Stanton’s willingness to censor commentary about his own work is a valid concern to critics. According to Smyth, Stanton had also removed critiques of certain blog entries. Although the critique of his blog may be incorrect in Stanton’s eyes, he surely shouldn’t be censoring it.

It is important for Stanton to do several things. Perhaps he could more clearly define what HONY’s purpose is and admit some of his own biases. Smyth’s argument against his selection bias of photographic subjects, while interesting, seems not really to detract from the art. Escapism is not necessarily irresponsible; people go to see action movies where the heroes always win, listen to uplifting songs and sometimes go to HONY to get some quick relief from the CNN headlines about ISIS and plane crashes.

Scott Johnson ’18 johnso16@stolaf.edu is from Gladstone, Mo. He majors in economics.

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