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Commentary: HONY and Humanity


I have long been a fan of Brandon Stanton and his blog Humans of New York.  After he was fired from his job in Chicago as a bond trader, he moved to New York City and decided to see if he could make a living doing something that he loved – photography.  His initial goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers and place their portraits on a map of the city.  At some point he started not only taking pictures of people, but talking to them as well.  He posts interesting quotes to accompany the photos. Sometimes it's a sentence and other times a short story. 

The images and words invite curiosity and draw the reader in for a closer examination of both the photo and the person.  In 2010 Stanton created the HONY Facebook page and it went viral. 

Although Stanton isn’t an anthropologist, he uses the tools of our trade expertly.  As a cultural anthropologist, I tell my students that the discipline seeks to tell stories about humanity and the world in which we live. 

Since 2014 students in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology classes have been asked to complete an exercise, I call Humans of WIU. The assignment takes place in the first couple of weeks of classes and serves two purposes.  First, it forces students to engage in ethnography, which is a way of understanding the world that relies on participant observation.  To do participant observation you have to go to the place you are studying and engage in some way with the individuals you are learning about. 

The second purpose of this task is to help students become more comfortable with their surroundings and to meet new people.  By slowing down and engaging with others, we discover similarities where we may perceive differences. 

Despite being in the midst of a global pandemic, my students this year came away with some amazing stories.  Asking simple questions like, “What is the best or worst thing that has ever happened to you?” unleashed narratives of having been homelessness and still making it to college, and how the loss of a loved one to suicide encouraged another person to ask for help for depression.  The point is we never really know what people are carrying around with them. 

The recently posted Tattletales from Tanqueray is probably one of the best stories that Stanton has shared.  Walking home dressed in his workout clothes from the gym on a cold day, he walked by a 76-year old woman dressed in a floor length faux mink coat. Rather than ignoring her he said  “You look great,” to which she responded, “Let me ask you a question.  Why is it always white boys who wear shorts in the winter?”  That brief moment of engagement resulted in a friendship that has changed the lives of not only those two individuals, but all of those who have watched Stephanie’s story unfold over thirty-two posts. 

Without giving too much away, I will just say that her story begins in the 1940’s as a young black girl growing up in mostly white Albany, New York, then takes us to the heyday of Times Square in the 1970s, and culminates in an all too familiar story as Stephanie finds herself alone, ill, and without insurance or family to help. 

Stephanie’s story illustrates that that love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.  Without them humanity cannot survive.   I encourage you to check out her story.  It is amazing.  But more importantly, engage with those around you.  You never know what you will learn.

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.