Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton St. Martin’s Press 2015

January 26, 2016

The first book in the Humans of New York series is a photographic essay. Stanton purchased his first camera six months before losing his job as a bond trader. A weekend trip to New York inspired him with its array of eclectic and vibrant residents.  


Stanton’s original plan was to create a map with 10,000 photographs of New Yorkers plotted across it. Eventually, he began adding short quotes and captions. The new format increased his blog’s popularity and out of this came the Humans of New York series.


The first book is almost entirely visual. Stories and captions are sparse, save for a simple location reveal or information describing the photo. This allows the photos to stand on their own, giving the reader an opportunity to bring their own interpretation to the scene.  


As Stanton collected photos, he found the camera served as a conduit for people to open up and tell him their stories. From this, Humans of New York: Stories was born. The reader is treated to the same concept as the before, but instead of spartan captions or mere location tags, Humans of New York: Stories is filled with accompanying text.


Many of the stories are whimsical, such as the little girl who gleefully exclaims, “You’re taking my picture!” A small boy, perhaps five or six, wants to build bridges in Wisconsin because he feels there are a lot of people who don’t have bridges. The wrinkle in his plan? He’s not entirely certain where Wisconsin is.

 
There is the 20-something woman in a wheelchair who wants to become a diplomat in order to make life in China easier for people with disabilities. She lived in a Chinese orphanage until she was 10 and was unable to attend school because she couldn’t walk. At the end of her story, the reader learns she has been accepted to the London School of Economics.


The book is also a study in contrasts. Across the page from the aspiring diplomat is a middle-aged man who served ten years in prison. When questioned why, he responds, “Organized crime. Allegedly.” In the span of five short sentences, one gets the distinct impression that even though this man is currently anonymous, his face will one day be plastered on the news. (One couple photographed later became a national headline after a cache of explosives was discovered in their apartment.)

 

Nothing is off limits, and Humans of New York: Stories delves into a considerable range of topics. Two teenagers who don’t know yet if they are friends or something more. The elderly couple who cannot agree whether this is their 61st or 62nd anniversary. A young couple who nervously reveal they are on their first date.


Many of the stories are poignant reminders that life can turn on a dime. A young man and his wife were at dinner soon before her due date with their first child.

 

While enjoying their meal, they received a phone call that they needed to get to the hospital quickly because the mother-to be’s platelet count was low. At the hospital hey are assured everything will be fine, but a few days later, the man finds himself a widower with a newborn baby. While he describes meeting her as evoking a “finally home” feeling, losing her creates an emptiness that he cannot imagine ever filling.


A common theme throughout is that our stories connect us. Stanton used the visibility of his blog to promote and fund humanitarian causes. Recently, he traveled to Pakistan and Iran to gather stories. He also did a lengthy feature on the refugee crisis.


Readers of the HONY blog (Humans of New York) have helped refugees, a woman in New York who fled an abusive situation with four children and was facing eviction, a man who lost his tractor in an accident, and a Pakistani woman who left an abusive relationship with a young daughter and was in need of treatment for Hepatitis C. HONY raised over $2 million for the Bonded Labour Liberation Front.  


While there are a number of photo essay books, none touch on the human experience in the same way. Readers might find interest in life. love. beauty. by Keegan Allen. Like Humans of New York: Stories, Allen intersperses story and caption with his photos. life. love. beauty., however, is more a personal photographic memoir as it centers around his career and the people he encounters within that setting.


Humans of New York: Stories is well deserving of its bestseller status. The stories pull the reader in, causing you to love, laugh, and cry. The book strives to make the world a smaller, better place and it succeeds brilliantly. ★ ★ ★ ★

Kris Milstead is a nerd insomniac. When she is not surfing the Internet or watching Doctor Who, she can probably be found reading and working on her next book review. You can follow her on Twitter at medelle71 or email her at tardis_lord@yahoo.com.

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