By Jonah Bromwich
When Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind the enormously popular website ‘Humans of New York’, landed this month in Irbil, Iraq, he had no idea that chaos was about to engulf the city.
“It was a complete coincidence that I happened to be there,” Stanton said. “I arrive in Iraq the day that the Mosul dam got taken and the day that Sinjar mountain got taken.”
Stanton is known for strolling the streets of New York, taking people’s pictures and interviewing them about their lives. He then posts the portraits and captions on the Humans of New York blog, as well as on Instagram, where his work has over 1.5 million followers, and on the blog’s Facebook page, which has over 9 million. His book of the same title spent 21 weeks on The New York Times non-fiction best-seller list, quickly soaring to No. 1.
Now Stanton has shifted his sights beyond the five boroughs, documenting street life near dangerous areas and war zones around the world on a 50-day United Nations-sponsored tour. Irbil was the first stop, and he has since visited a refugee camp in Jordan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He plans to visit Ukraine, Haiti and South Sudan.
“Those are the places that have the most extreme headlines coming out,” Stanton said by phone from Jerusalem, where he was planning to take pictures and then ask the UN for permission to post them.
In one of his posts, a man standing with his three young daughters at a market in northern Iraq confesses his worries about providing for them. In another, a man sitting on a camel in the ancient Jordanian city of Petra discusses his philosophy of life. Many of the most moving pictures come from the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where many Syrians have ended up after fleeing their country’s civil war. The stories in these photographs often involve the death of a family member or neighbour.
Although Stanton has attracted a huge following, some photography experts suggest that there are limits to the impact of his content. Nina Berman, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the photographer behind the book Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq, praised Stanton’s work but said that the travel series “doesn’t allow for any complexity, give you any historical information or any way to access the greater picture”. She added, “It’s a way to get news from a frightening, inaccessible place that seems safe and cozy.”
The photographs have received tens of thousands of Facebook comments. “They’re like us” is the sentiment expressed most frequently, and some of the observations seem naïve: One commenter hadn’t realised that malls exist in the Middle East, and another thought the region was “nothing but tent villages and dust”.
The trip is a promotional vehicle for the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, an eight-part mission focusing on reducing poverty, protecting the environment and promoting peace, among other objectives.
Stanton, 30, moved to New York and began taking photographs after losing his job as a bond trader in Chicago in 2010.
After several months, he added the interview component, posting snippets of conversation along with his pictures. He began to build a following, leading to the publication of his first book last October. Little Humans, a book focusing on children, is due out this fall.
Stanton professes to be apolitical. “I purposely and pointedly try to avoid infusing any meaning in the work,” he said.
But critics of his project say that it is misleading to suggest that politics can be avoided, especially in the places Stanton is visiting.
Stanton, however, believes that skirting politics helps him focus on his subjects’ everyday lives. “The depth and the extent of the tragedy that people go through and still keep going and living and laughing has been really shocking.”