The “critical” reception of Humans of New York

Because of the existence of Humans of New York, faces are striking me as more beautiful than ever. *All* faces. And to that end, for the past month or so since I first encountered HONY, the true beauty of genetic science and the similarly pulchritudinous coexistence of sameness amidst our human variation fills me with a renewed appreciation for being one among many billions. An embodied understanding of the notion “that which makes us different makes us ever more alike.”

I offer this as more than merely observation or correlation; this is direct causation, never mind that this was a (self)study with an N of 1.

I had started a different blog post to the same effect, that delved more deeply into the fairly wondrous sensation that accompanies the moment when our view of the world shifts ever so slightly, but enough to awe us; when something helps us to make the familiar strange. The human face, I’ve been saying to myself and shaking my head in amazement. So simple, an incredible canvas, the original cartographic instrument.

But an update on my Facebook wall today has redirected this HONY-related post. Brandon Stanton, the guy who is behind many hundreds of thousands of people’s daily delights of the photographic variety, shared the following thoughts in partial response to a frustrating trend that this HONY appreciator has been noticing as well:

Brandon invites the audience to “make HONY different than the rest of the internet.” A provocative surmise, not least of all because such a project could not exist were it not for the internet. Yet his plea is not without foundation. Can a space that, especially once it is in the public domain, no longer belongs to one or a few people still retain any sense of an “original” mission or purpose? Is the democratic impetus incongruous with eviction and banning? Can Brandon just be a guy taking photos and posting them for the world’s enjoyment? (I suspect that the answer to that last question, at least, is no.)

There is safety in numbers, the saying goes, but greater numbers also bring about unforeseen challenges; numbers increase audience, increase others’ awareness where once upon a time a project like HONY enjoyed relative anonymity — or at the very least a dedicated, like-minded audience. In art, such as the Humans of New York project, as in other aspects of life, there appears to be no shortage of people who have made their way as a path of opposition — to others, to ideas, to whole populations. And too often, this opposition is given credibility as being “critical.” Perhaps this is critical of me, but criticality strikes me as an orientation that ought to be more fully immersed in the practices of seeing and looking and observing and unknowing. Of what is one being critical? That is, to merely assert someone is [fill-in-the-blank]-ist, does little “work in the world” other than maybe to advance the visibility of the one who makes such assertions.

Can we identify and describe things using language other than what we might normally use? Or view things from perspectives other than the ones we rely on without much thinking? If there is disagreement about characterization in the HONY portraits, for example, can one wonder about Brandon’s use of wording in his captions from a generous position? (What I would really love is to replace all of the anxiety-laden, content-thin but testing-heavy curricula in schools with ample opportunities for young people to **really** ask questions and pursue inquiries that begin with “I wonder why…” and “What happens when…” and “In what ways…” — these are questions that stay at the point of description, linger in the phase of noticing, instead of leaping to conclusions.)

I will continue to delight in the portraits, even when the captions — that are very often insightful themselves — fall somewhat short of my expectations; I will ease my expectations to prevent hypocritical slippage; and when I do find myself starting to make claims or assumptions about this or that, I’ll look again at the photo and wonder instead about the stories and situations that led to its existence. There’s a different sort of criticality that grows in the forest of narratives. That is where you’ll find me.

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4 Responses to The “critical” reception of Humans of New York

  1. Dienna says:

    I saw that comment on Facebook earlier. This is an interesting debate, because while it’s great that something like this is reaching out to the wider world, Facebook is not necessarily known for its tactful commentary. The Internet breeds cowardice, and people who would never dare say some of the things they say to people’s faces feel a lot more bold to do so on their computers. While there should be an openness in discussion, I feel that some things (i.e., the ugly commentary) aren’t meant to be said.

    • sabonseine says:

      It’s tricky, isn’t it, because sometimes it’s the saying of the “ugly commentary” that moves various corners of the world to act. And at the same time, one person’s “ugly” is another person’s “normal” and on and on. The dilemma raises for me the question of how we engage the possibilities of these digital spaces while at the same time acknowledging (and possibly anticipating) their flaws — and in the process, can a project or mission or community overcome what seems to be inevitable, which in this case is this almost bravado-infused cowardice, as you noted. I keep turning to the idea that we should resist making the perfect the enemy of the good — now, if only everyone else (i.e. on facebook) could agree…!

  2. Brandon says:

    so well written.

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