Opinion

Humans of New York spreads empathy and pluralism

Photography project will restore your faith in humanity

“Hey there. I’m Brandon. I get really passionate about things.” So goes the opening line to the Humans of New York “Photographer” webpage, jotted down as if his presence on the Web were the passing thought of a simplistic mind. Far from it.

Humans of New York is the growing collection of photographed portraits captured by 30-year-old Brandon Stanton, weaving strangers into the intimate fabric of a neglected pedestrian narrative. In a matter of just a few years, he has restored faith in decency, connecting his followers to the lowest common denominator of mankind with little more than a camera and a friendly demeanor.

The blog’s appeal could be easily described as an inspirational blip in the cycle of passive Internet consumption, yet the overwhelming response of millions would suggest there is a deeper pathos lining these city streets. So let me ask, what is so profound about the act of talking to a stranger?

According to the literature of evolutionary psychology, humans create shortcuts like stereotyping to make a complex world easier to comprehend. As a result, our perceptions are filled with bias. The U.S. education system often frames the conversation surrounding bias in the context of prejudice and hate, but many of the judgments we make on the basis of identifiers such as race, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, gender and sexual orientation are merely the negative externality of survival imperatives.

We as humans are adapted to the past, meaning our primitive selves operate beneath the modality of 21st-century consciousness. That does not mean we are victims to the past. It does mean the identifiers mentioned above are real precisely because they are contrived by the structure and function of innate cognition.

From an evolutionary perspective, Humans of New York is successful for several reasons. First, instead of leaving oneself susceptible to an uncertain and therefore threatening experience, it is possible to experiment in the lives of others through the low-impact use of a photo essay. Second, storytelling organizes our own lives so we can derive meaning (i.e. the “moral of the story”) from a succession of puzzling events to make better-informed decisions. And third, effective communication between groups allows for cooperation, exposing the human condition to an unspoken network of empathy. The simple act of talking to strangers makes them less threatening and makes us better informed, fulfilling the individual need to survive and the genetic need to survive as a species.

By showing what it means to be anyone other than oneself, Humans of New York has advanced world peace. In a future we may never live to see, civilization will continue to aspire toward integration, from free trade agreements to monetary unions and eventually political consolidation. If the wide acceptance of evolution proves true, then it is the composition and exchange of values between strangers that will spread pluralism where confusion and hostility persist. That is the most basic infrastructure of diplomacy. In his travels, Stanton began to reach this larger vision by exposing the normalcy of Iranian life heavily ignored by sensationalist media coverage. But we need this movement to expand further, to expand anywhere an adventurer will wander.

That is why I was thrilled to learn that freshman Rachael Wang began her own photo collection by creating the Humans of Binghamton University Facebook page. In her candids of joy and hope, reflection and despair, we are reminded that hidden beneath the numbing crowdedness of a big campus lies a bias we must all overcome — the bias of knowing much less about our fellow man than we care to admit. It is the same reason we need to create a Humans of Binghamton page to diffuse the local “townie” stigma, so we as a University can open our hearts to the community and rebuild Downtown together. Now all we need is a second camera and someone who gets “really passionate about things.”

Views expressed in the opinion pages represent the opinions of the columnists.