Humans of Anywhere
As a child living in Manhattan, I observed my grownups, and learned the drill for safely moving through the big city. Keep eyes straight ahead, walk quickly and confidently. Do not engage in small talk with strangers, on the street or in an elevator. Never look at a stranger’s face, lest you lock eyes with a serial killer.
Even after moving out to the suburbs, my sisters and I remained wary. In case we wavered, Mom would trot out her horror story: in her teens, she’d been offered a ride by a man she thought was the tennis pro at the country club. Once Joanie got in the car, she realized it was not, in fact, anyone she knew. The unknown man said to her, “You don’t know me, do you? I’m going to stop the car now. Get out and run.” Which she did.
Mom’s tale made quite an impression on us as little girls. One rainy day, our neighbor pulled up beside us as we walked home from school, asking if we wanted a ride. We vehemently shook our heads and sprinted away. Even though it was obvious that it was a kindly woman we’d known for years, we weren’t about to risk it! Far safer to slog home in a downpour!
My paranoia has diminished somewhat, but I can never shake the vague fear surrounding any encounter with a stranger. So, I was fascinated to discover Brandon Stanton and the Humans of New York project. How can a young man be brave enough to ask to photograph random people on the streets of the big city? Now mind you, Brandon being a male clearly makes a difference in this calculation, but still—it must’ve taken guts to approach, camera in hand. His immediate goal was to take pictures of 10,000 people.
Over time, he realized that his subjects each had stories to tell—amazing, funny, tragic, beautiful stories. And so, he began writing the stories down, and sharing them, along with the photos, on his website. Many of the stories were troubling—people in dire situations, battling severe health challenges, living on the street. Then came the pandemic, and bad situations got much, much worse. Brandon wanted to do more than just snap a picture, so he set up Go Fund Me campaigns that have raised millions of dollars and helped people--from the immigrant parents of a seriously ill child, to a man blinded in a subway attack—get back on their feet.
Brandon’s current goal is to help his once strangers/now friends get enough funds to achieve “escape velocity.” This is a term in astronomy, but Brandon defines it in these cases as “liberation from the gravity of their own circumstances.” It is a wonderful cause.
How about me? Can I overcome my reluctance to engage? Do I dare to make eye contact--and heart contact--with a stranger? I don’t know.
But nowadays, when we are dangerously de-humanizing one another, maybe I’d better try.