Humans of NYHumans of New York
by Brandon Stanton

A picture book — a completely engrossing and thought-inspiring picture book. That’s what I found on the “new books” shelf of my local library branch. I picked it up on a whim, thinking I would thumb through it in one evening and return it quickly. Instead, I kept it for the full 3-week loan, studying these photographs one by one, slowly savoring the individual faces and their brief snippets of words.

According to the book’s Introduction, this photo collection began in 2010 as a project to create a pictorial census of New York City. But as the photographer continued taking pictures of people, he found himself listening to their words, seeing their uniqueness, wanting to convery the wonderful variety of humanity in a fresh way. He began posting a portrait every day on a web site “Humans of New York” — (HONY for short). It’s been going on for several years now, and attracted more and more viewers, but I had never heard of it until I picked up this book in the library. For some of us, a traditional book is still our doorway into a new place.

There’s not much text, but what’s there is almost like found poetry:

A young girl is grooving to music on a front stoop — I really wanted to take her photo, so I walked up to the nearest adult and asked, “Does she belong to you?” Suddenly the music stopped, and I heard, “I belong to myself.” 

An old man with gray hair and a white beard leans on his cane and stares straight into the camera — “One day you’re gonna realize who I am and you’re gonna say, ‘Oh, shit’.” — “So who are you?” — “I’m the guy in your photograph.”

Two toddlers pose at the foot of a playground slide — “If we put them at the end of the slide, will they sit still?” — “For about five seconds.”

 A man working at a construction site — “You better not make it seem like we were sitting around. Don’t take the picture until the bulldozer starts moving.”

A young woman clutches a book to her heart — (a copy of “A People’s History of the Third World”) — “I want to change the world, but I don’t know how.”

An elderly woman in a fur hat stands beneath her umbrella — “When my husband was dying, I said, ‘Moe, how am I supposed to live without you?’ He told me, ‘Take the love you have for me and spread it around’.”

A young couple poses with their newborn baby — “We’re gonna be fine.”

Then there are the wordless photos, the ones that seem to shake off the need for words.

A young man stands in a downpour, dramatically pointing his cane up at the clouds.

A man kneels alone in an attitude of prayer surrounded by green grass and trees of a city park.

A little girl in a cherry-red coat and colorfully beaded hair giggles in delight as her picture is snapped.

A young woman holds still while a pair of pigeons eat out of her mittened hands.

A young man exuberantly swings upside down from a pole in a subway car.

There are faces that speak deeply all by themselves, without any action or pose at all.

A young woman on this page, an old man on that page, a group of teenagers here, all simply looking into the camera, their eyes and mouths communicating things that I can’t figure out how to describe.

This book has kept me engrossed for three weeks, just looking at people, then looking at them again.

In my job at the front gate of the zoo, I see Humans of Rochester pass before me every day. Watching the people makes even a slow day interesting. Today I saw an awkward teen couple negotiate the ettiquette challenge of who was going to pay admission. I saw an elderly man push his wife into the zoo in a wheelchair, with their toddler granddaughter riding in her grandma’s lap. I saw a little boy kissing his baby sister in her stroller. I saw the woman who daily walks her dog past our gate pause to let excited children pet the dog. I saw the parents and children, young couples, old couples, teenagers in groups, lone adults with cameras.

If my eyes were a camera, and my mind took a picture every time my eyes blinked, this is what my work day might look like. It might look like this book.