Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Humans - Brandon Stanton

Summary: Brandon Stanton created Humans of New York in 2010.  What began as a photographic census of life in New York City soon evolved into a storytelling phenomenon.  A global audience of millions began following HONY daily.  Over the next several years, Stanton broadened his lens to include people from across the world.  

Traveling to more than forty countries, Stanton conducted interviews across continents, borders, and language barriers.  Humans is the definitive catalog of these travels.  The faces and locations will vary from page to page, but the stories will feel deeply familiar.  Told with candor and intimacy.  Humans will resonate with readers across the globe -- providing a portrait of our shared experience.  (Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com - This book was given to me for free by an awesome lady...Just because!)

NOTE:  Many Black, Indigenous, and people of color are photographed in this book and their stories, while collected by a white author, are all told in their own words.  Since the author made a conscious decision to use direct quotes, thereby elevating BIPOC voices over his own, I have given the book the BIPOC Perspectives label.

My Review:  What started out as one man's goal to photograph 10,000 people in New York City has evolved into a global phenomenon.  As Brandon Stanton began to photograph random people on the street, he also started to collect their stories and share them on social media.  The response was overwhelming.  Soon, Stanton hit the road, traveling internationally, taking photographs, and listening to what his subjects had to say.  The end result is an indescribably riveting collection of photographs and stories from people around the world -- Humans.  

In Humans, Stanton has compiled a bittersweet gallery of the human experience, covering almost every region and culture, as well as a wide swath of ages, ethnicities, income levels, personal beliefs, and walks of life. The photographs themselves are taken from a variety of angles and distances, and only occasionally taken in a way to preserve the subject's anonymity. Although the book isn't organized into labeled chapters, there are several groupings of photographs that seem to follow a common theme, like family relationships, personal struggles, religion, education, and employment, etc.  It actually reminds me of another photography book that I reviewed recently.  Where that book featured photos and locations exclusively, Humans provides deeper context, with personal quotes that offer a look into the lives of each subject.  I loved what Stanton had to say about what to expect:

"...much of the world is only seen through the lens of conflict .  And when these are the only stories we hear, the world seems like a pretty dark place.  But even in the world's most dangerous places, 95 percent of the life being lived has nothing to do with violence.  It's much less exciting than that.  It's about falling in love.  And raising a family.  And making friends,.   And struggling to provide.  And battling addictions. And fighting cancer.  These are the stories that are really happening all over the world.  They're the stories that you'll hear when you aren't searching for violent conflict.  These are the stories you'll here if you stop random people on the street and invite them to share a bit about their lives....Some of the stories are violent, because those stories exist.  But the important distinction is that the stories were not selected for this reason.  They were selected at random."  

Humans is brimming with beautiful pictures and accounts of the every day, heroic, tragic, and tender moments in life.  It's strange how a book can be full of words and yet words don't really do it justice. Evocative, doesn't seem to cover it. Compelling doesn't really come close.  Heartbreaking.  Inspiring.  Frustrating.  Honest.  Dark.  Funny. Chilling.  It was an honor to read each of these stories and be 'present' as human beings from around the world lowered their guard and shared a little piece of their souls, their passions, and troubles.  It really put me through the emotional wringer; I was feeling all the feels in rapid succession, flat-out horrified by the challenges many face and amazed at the strength and resilience of humanity. 

This book was incredibly difficult to put down.  While the photographs were fascinating in their own way, I was catapulted headlong into the stories that accompany them.  I sat down with Humans after the kids went to bed and before I knew it, 1:40 AM had rolled around and I was still wide-awake and reading.  I went to bed without finishing, but kept reading it on and off throughout the next day.  Whenever I was called away from it to, well, parent my children, I kept feeling pulled back to the beating hearts contained on each page.  

Humans offered a very different perspective of the world than I am used to seeing out my kitchen window.  While I didn't agree with every view that was expressed, or love all the words that were used, I appreciated the opportunity to listen and strive for understanding.  It also gave me a sense of connection with the world around me in a time of increased isolation.  I could see that despite the innumerable differences that exist between us as individuals, deep down we all have the same basic fears and aspirations.  At our very core, we are connected by a universal desire for love, belonging, happiness, health, safety, and the ability to provide for our families.  Stanton really explains it best:

"...our struggles connect us.  We relate to the challenge of other people much more than we relate to their victories.  We empathize with pain much more than joy.  The moment we truly see ourselves in another person is when we realize we've felt the exact same pain. I'm not sure why this happens, but it happens.  Maybe pain is the most universal feeling.  Maybe there is an invisible, connective thread that runs between the loneliness of an old man and the hunger of an impoverished child.  Maybe pain isn't divisible. It's singular and searing.  Maybe it sinks deeper into the psyche.  Whatever the reason, when another person feels it, we feel it ourselves."

I only have one complaint about this book and that is the black matte cover.  It is virtually impossible to touch this book without leaving fingerprints. all. over. it.  I was careful with my copy and it still looks like it was handled by a toddler who'd recently been dipped in butter.  So, if you buy this book (and I sincerely recommend that you do), you're gonna want to take that cover off ASAP.  Like, before you get home.

I would love to share the stories in this book with my children, within reason and where age-appropriate.  There are many accounts that would broaden their understanding of the world and help them gain perspective and empathy.  However, given some of the more harsh and/or explicit accounts, I wouldn't feel comfortable leaving this book down for my Littles to freely flip through. Take that into account when you consider the placement of this book in your home library.  Overall, I feel that Humans has immense value and, if you shelve it high enough, a place on every bookshelf.  

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some of the 'stories' contain profanity (most often the F word), a few racist words in quotation, and brief accounts of rape, abuse, and even murder.  Only one account was particularly graphic in both language and description. There is discussion of many different lifestyles, personal struggles, and belief systems.

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