Brooklyn, February 2016

Humans of the World

Everybody’s life is a film worth watching. Welcome to the Humans of the world phenomenon.

Last February I went to New York and it’s hard to get it off my mind. Such a vast city, with so many contradictions and diverse people. Most of the time I was walking or taking the metro and its urban landscape still resonates with me. But besides monuments and museums I also paid attention to people. Individuals make places special with their creativity and energy.

Out there in the streets of New York there is one photographer capturing their stories. His name is Brandon Stanton and he’s rolling out the city, one story at a time. The database he has built is impressive. His idea is incredibly strong and universal. He walks all day up and down the city of New York, he kindly asks if he can take pictures of the people he sees around him. There is great diversity in his portraits, Black, White, Asian, men, women, young, old and children.

Some people say no, many pose and share something personal about themselves. Brandon asks triggering questions and he is really good at making the person feel at ease, a space of intimacy with a stranger is thus created in a very short time. He shows them the pictures, tells them about his popular website and social media pages, enjoys a conversation. He moves on to the next.

“I thought I would thrive here. I’ve got an MBA and a Masters in Engineering. I worked for a major real estate developer back in Brazil. I was in charge of land acquisitions. They would tell me: ‘Bruno, go find opportunities for us.’ I’d locate good properties and then negotiate a price. I generated a lot of revenue. I felt powerful. When I spoke to rich people and politicians, I’d feel like their equal. Not in an arrogant way. But I did not feel inferior when I spoke to them. Coming to New York has really challenged my confidence. I applied to over fifty companies when I arrived. Maybe one hundred. But nobody hired me. I have a new daughter coming in August, so now I’m trying to work as a real estate broker. But that has been very difficult too. I’ve only closed one deal so far, and I split that with another broker. Maybe it’s because my English is not perfect. Recently I offended a wealthy lady by suggesting she clean her apartment before showing it. I showed her some dust and she told me to never come back. That was really tough for me because I was really proud of my people skills. And now it seemed that even those had left me. But I think that things are finally beginning to turn around. I have two closings scheduled this month. And yesterday I spent all day with a lady from China, and she barely spoke English, but at the end of the day, she told me: ‘I trust you.’”

A photo posted by Humans of New York (@humansofny) on

Unlike search engines, social media help us discover things we don’t want to discover, people scroll down their feeds and are flooded with photos, videos, comments, articles, emoticons and increasingly advertising they don’t want to see. However it also happens that one finds interesting and intriguing content straight from the source. The best gets clicked and since 2010 Humans of New York has built a Facebook following of almost 18 million people and copy cats websites sprinkled around the world. He has published two photo books that became New York Times bestselling titles.

For years I had heard about Humans of New York and noticed it in bookstores, but only after my recent Manhattan trip I actually bothered to look. I like urban environments and its humanity and feeling the post trip blue I soon clicked on to Humans of Dublin, London, Paris, Milan and Amsterdam.

At the click of a mouse the streets are real time museums. These are real people and true stories that open a new perspective on the simple action of walking. Compelling human stories of your next door or faraway stranger, heightening perception, offering new readings of normal people living their lives now. Some of those personal stories are really touching.

”In a previous relationship I made the mistake of having unprotected sex. I met a really nice guy a few months ago and because our relationship started to get more serious I wanted to make sure I didn’t have an STD. I made a doctors appointment to get tested on a Friday. Wednesday morning after I got tested I received a phone call from the doctor’s assistant. She asked if I could come over that same day. Because I work on Wednesdays I asked her if I could come over on Friday, which is my day off. I kept having this terrible anxiety so I decided to leave work early that day to go and get my test results. I was sitting in the doctor’s office and I felt something was wrong. I kept thinking I might be pregnant. Then the doctor asked: ”Do you have any idea why you are here?” I told her I was expecting the worst. Then the doctor said: There is no good way to tell you this but you are HIV-positive.” (1/2) Photo and story by @debrabarraud #amsterdam #humansofamsterdam

A photo posted by Humans of Amsterdam (@humansofamsterdam) on

Some others are really uplifting.

“I graduated last May with an accounting degree and moved to the city. But four months had passed and I didn’t have a job yet. I’d probably sent out my resume to thirty different places. And I couldn’t afford to keep waiting for people to call me back. So I went to the strip with all the car dealerships, and started going door-to-door to see if they had any openings in accounting. I’ve always loved cars. I used to always read Consumer Reports with my dad. So I thought it would be a good fit. The lady at BMW was a bit standoffish. Then I went to Audi. They were great. Super welcoming. But they didn’t have any positions at the moment. Then I got to Jaguar/Land Rover– which was my first choice, so I was working up to it— and they sat me down right there for an interview. I was there all afternoon, then they said: ‘We like what we see. Can you start tomorrow?’ I ran outside and called my parents. My dad was so proud of me. I was so proud of myself.”

A photo posted by Humans of New York (@humansofny) on

But it is the simplicity of the idea, executed obsessively by Brandon when he lost his job in Chicago and moved to New York, that catapulted him to global fame. He is not the only one, Scott Schuman, aka The Sartorialist, became a global star in the world of fashion for taking pictures of street fashionistas.

A self-made Humans of New York (HONY)

I took thousands of photos in New York, some of me and my friends. For two weeks we also belonged to HONY, we just did not bump into Brandon. It’s funny to see what happens if I apply his idea. Here are some photos with captions.

Ciava in New York, February 2016
“It’s my first time in New York. I have not been taking holidays for such a long time. A couple of years ago I started my own business, running a hostel in my town in the north of Italy. Many cyclists touring the country stay at our place. Once we had a guest who cycled all the way from Japan! At the hostel we also help refugees who arrive from many poor countries with the dream of a better life.”
Iron in New York
“They started to call me Iron after the notorious match when Mike Tyson bit the ear of his opponent and people were calling him Iron Mike. So I became Iron Boidi, out of fun. My girlfriend has never called me that way, nor with my first name. She just calls me Boidi, my surname, even now that we are married.”
'I have had a number of relationships so far. They probably have all ended because at some point my attention towards them faded, or for not having big plans. It’s funny because in so many other aspects of my life I overplan. But love has its own path.'
“I had a number of relationships so far. They probably have all ended because at some point my attention towards them faded, or for not having big plans. It’s funny because in so many other aspects of my life I over-plan. But love has its own path.”

The result may not be as good as HONY, Brandon skilfully selects the most revealing shots and compelling stories, but you get the point. At times people reveal more of themselves to total strangers than friends.

Self-publishing tools brought about by the internet revolution such as WordPress, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Flickr allow more people to unleash creativity, the canvas has expanded pretty much everywhere. Sifting through the material we are bombarded with is challenging, but at least space and identity are guiding categories that still apply. The medium is the message, but it’s the stories that have value.

Photos: Marco Ciavaglioli, Beppe Simone CC BY-SA