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‘Humans of New York’ Sends Back Powerful Portraits and Heartbreaking Stories from the Middle East

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It’s getting to the point where you’d be hard pressed to find anybody who doesn’t already know about Humans of New York, Brandon Stanton’s project turned photobook turned international phenomenon. But that became even harder this week when Stanton took the project on the road with the UN and delivered some of his most powerful portraits from the streets of, not New York City, but Iraq.

Stanton has been operating from the war-torn country as of August 7th as part of a 2-month UN World Tour, and since then, the project’s following on Facebook has jumped by nearly a quarter of a million people.

This is no accident either. The impact of the intimate, life-affirming style that has earned Stanton millions of admirers is somehow multiplied 100-fold when the people he is talking to are often fighting for their lives and struggling with issues that most of his followers couldn’t even imagine.

I normally go into my conversations with a set of proven questions to ask, that I find will elicit a wide variety of anecdotes from people’s lives: happiest moment, saddest moment, things like that. But with people fleeing war, it is absolutely impossible to discuss anything beyond the present moment. Their circumstances are so overpowering, there is absolutely zero room in their minds for any other thoughts. The conversation immediately stalls, because any topic of conversation beyond their present despair seems grossly inappropriate. You realize that without physical security, no other layers of the human experience can exist. “All day they do is cry for home,” she told me. (Dohuk, Iraq)

I normally go into my conversations with a set of proven questions to ask, that I find will elicit a wide variety of anecdotes from people’s lives: happiest moment, saddest moment, things like that. But with people fleeing war, it is absolutely impossible to discuss anything beyond the present moment. Their circumstances are so overpowering, there is absolutely zero room in their minds for any other thoughts. The conversation immediately stalls, because any topic of conversation beyond their present despair seems grossly inappropriate. You realize that without physical security, no other layers of the human experience can exist. “All day they do is cry for home,” she told me. (Dohuk, Iraq)

Humans of New York is, after all, a project about humanity. The reason New York City works so well is because Stanton is never short of interesting people whose experiences vary as widely as their birthplaces. Taking the project on the road is just a way for Stanton to “listen to as many people as possible,” and share what they’re saying with us.

“We hope this trip may in some way help to inspire a global perspective,” writes Stanton, “while bringing awareness to the challenges that we all need to tackle together.”

The images he’s sent back so far range from heartwarming to heartbreaking, with a heavy natural slant towards the latter. Here is a selection of photos, complete with captions, that he’s uploaded from the Middle East:

“She speaks more languages than anyone in the family. Because she plays with all the children in the street.” (Erbil, Iraq)

“She speaks more languages than anyone in the family. Because she plays with all the children in the street.” (Erbil, Iraq)

“My happiest moments are whenever I see my mother happy.”“What’s the happiest you’ve ever seen her?”“When I was a child, some German doctors told us that I could have a surgery in Italy, and my legs would work again. She was so happy she started crying. But I never had the money to go.” (Erbil, Iraq)

“My happiest moments are whenever I see my mother happy.”“What’s the happiest you’ve ever seen her?”“When I was a child, some German doctors told us that I could have a surgery in Italy, and my legs would work again. She was so happy she started crying. But I never had the money to go.” (Erbil, Iraq)

“I photoshopped my head onto a healthy body, to see what I would look like.” (Erbil, Iraq)

“I photoshopped my head onto a healthy body, to see what I would look like.” (Erbil, Iraq)

These children are members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, who are one of many minorities deemed expendable by ISIS militants. In the last few days, ISIS has moved into their villages and taken their homes. Tens of thousands of the villagers fled into a nearby range of mountains. Realizing this, ISIS circled the mountains with guns, blocked all the roads, and waited for them to die of thirst in the 120 degree heat. These children belonged to some of the families lucky enough to escape. While their parents were panicking about their relatives trapped in the mountains, these kids found a quiet place to play. I found them banging on some cans. I asked them what they were doing. “We’re building a car,” they said. "Isn’t that cute," I thought. "They’re imagining the cans are cars."When I came back 5 minutes later, they had punctured holes in all four cans. Using two metal wires as axles, they turned the cans into wheels, and attached them to the plastic crate lying nearby. They’d built a car. (Dohuk, Iraq)

These children are members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, who are one of many minorities deemed expendable by ISIS militants. In the last few days, ISIS has moved into their villages and taken their homes. Tens of thousands of the villagers fled into a nearby range of mountains. Realizing this, ISIS circled the mountains with guns, blocked all the roads, and waited for them to die of thirst in the 120 degree heat. These children belonged to some of the families lucky enough to escape. While their parents were panicking about their relatives trapped in the mountains, these kids found a quiet place to play. I found them banging on some cans. I asked them what they were doing. “We’re building a car,” they said. “Isn’t that cute,” I thought. “They’re imagining the cans are cars.”When I came back 5 minutes later, they had punctured holes in all four cans. Using two metal wires as axles, they turned the cans into wheels, and attached them to the plastic crate lying nearby. They’d built a car. (Dohuk, Iraq)

"There were dozens of them and only four of us. They took all my sheep." (Dohuk, Iraq)

“There were dozens of them and only four of us. They took all my sheep.” (Dohuk, Iraq)

"I would give my soul if I could fix her brain." (Dohuk, Iraq)

“I would give my soul if I could fix her brain.” (Dohuk, Iraq)

"We told her to sit with us so we could share her sadness." (Dohuk, Iraq)

“We told her to sit with us so we could share her sadness.” (Dohuk, Iraq)

“I worry about the day they start to want things that I can’t afford.” (Shaqlawa, Iraq)

“I worry about the day they start to want things that I can’t afford.” (Shaqlawa, Iraq)

Today in microfashion…. (Shaqlawa, Iraq)

Today in microfashion…. (Shaqlawa, Iraq)

"Swimming is the greatest thing in life. If we have time, we swim ten times per day." (Kalak, Iraq)

“Swimming is the greatest thing in life. If we have time, we swim ten times per day.” (Kalak, Iraq)

“I was the strongest young man in my town. They called me Bulldozer.” (Shaqlawa, Iraq)

“I was the strongest young man in my town. They called me Bulldozer.” (Shaqlawa, Iraq)

“My parents were captured when I was sixteen. They both died in prison.”“What do you remember about the day they were taken?”“I’m sorry. I don’t think I can do this. Can we stop?” (Shaqlawa, Iraq)

“My parents were captured when I was sixteen. They both died in prison.”“What do you remember about the day they were taken?”“I’m sorry. I don’t think I can do this. Can we stop?” (Shaqlawa, Iraq)

“We live in a very conservative culture, but I want my children to be open-minded. I try to bring them to as many places as possible: big malls, art galleries, concerts. We want them to see as many types of people as possible, and as many types of ideas as possible.” (Erbil, Iraq)

“We live in a very conservative culture, but I want my children to be open minded. I try to bring them to as many places as possible: big malls, art galleries, concerts. We want them to see as many types of people as possible, and as many types of ideas as possible.” (Erbil, Iraq)

"We just want to be together and not be afraid." (Erbil, Iraq)

“We just want to be together and not be afraid.” (Erbil, Iraq)

“I had a mobile phone and computer store back in Syria. It was completely looted during the fighting. I came here to find work, but I couldn’t afford to bring my family with me. When I left, I kissed my son and told him that I was leaving and I didn’t know where I was going. He was crying so hard that we had to lock him in the house as I said ‘goodbye’ to my wife. I haven’t even met my second son.”“What are your happiest memories of your son?”“Every time I went to work, he’d run after me. And every time I came home, he’d run to me.” (Erbil, Iraq)

“I had a mobile phone and computer store back in Syria. It was completely looted during the fighting. I came here to find work, but I couldn’t afford to bring my family with me. When I left, I kissed my son and told him that I was leaving and I didn’t know where I was going. He was crying so hard that we had to lock him in the house as I said ‘goodbye’ to my wife. I haven’t even met my second son.”“What are your happiest memories of your son?”“Every time I went to work, he’d run after me. And every time I came home, he’d run to me.” (Erbil, Iraq)

"She always dreams about the bombs." (Erbil, Iraq)

“She always dreams about the bombs.” (Erbil, Iraq)

The project began in Iraq, but already Stanton has moved on to Jordan and he will visit eight more countries before it’s all said and done.

The goal with these images, beyond simply sharing stories he would never have the chance to share from NYC, is to promote the eight Millennium Development Goals UN member states hope to achieve by 2015. But what you see above and what you’ll find if you follow Humans of New York in the coming weeks goes beyond the UN’s goals, however noble.

As they do in New York, his images from Iraq and the rest of the Middle East magically transcend the politics of borders and biases. When we see his portraits and read the captions, our differences drop away.

If only for a moment, we are just humans, staring into the eyes of another human, listening with rapt attention to the their story.


Image credits: Photographs by Brandon Stanton/Humans of New York and used with permission


 
  • http://keithgoldstein.me/ Keith Goldstein

    Interesting to see Brandon’s work move away from NYC. I do hope he uses this work to actually transcend borders and biases. I hope this work does not get political.

  • blp

    really love his facebook page :) has been followed him for quite a while now

  • Howard J.

    He’s getting better I see. I used to find this series absolutely uninteresting when he was emulating The Sartorialist. You know, the ‘street style’ approach where you ask your subject to stand with their back straight and feet together for their full body portrait?

    Still pretty boring nonetheless. But I’m glad for, and respect his success.

  • Edgar Allan Bro

    I really like his work – of course, boring photographers nitpick his photos, while ignoring the fact that he manages to find hundreds of interesting subjects each year, asking them interesting questions and giving an insight into the lives of people who aren’t just other boring photographers. All while taking flattering environmental shots.

    There is a reason he has such a huge following and you don’t. And it’s got nothing to do with 100% corner crop ‘tack sharp’ tests or bokeys rendering.

    The current humanitarian series does a really good job of humanising the casualties on the other side of the world, in a region that most westerners either don’t care about or actively hate. Something that’s both important and non-trivial. Good on him for using his reach and talents for something so positive.

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/ Stan B.

    One of the ways his work “could actually transcend borders and biases” is if it ever does become “political,” but that would mean he would have to take a stand on certain issues, it would mean he could no longer get by purely on feel good fluff, it would mean he would no longer be as popular. Doubt he’d risk that- although this is a step in the right direction.

    “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” -Hélder Câmara