“I want to be a pilot so I can fly everywhere.” (Dhana, Jordan)
In a new project in partnership with the UN, Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind the phenomenally successful blog Humans of New York, is going on a tour of ten countries around the world, to photograph those living there and record their stories. His first port of call was Iraq…
We live in a connected world, with the ability to receive news from every country at the click of the mouse or a sweep of a smartphone. Yet stories from individuals around the globe can be harder to locate, especially those in countries caught up in conflict or poverty. It can be difficult to see behind the headlines and discover the real daily experiences of civilians. This though, is what the Humans of New York UN World Tour is offering.
“I’m a student. My parents didn’t want me sitting around the house all summer, so they made me be a shepherd.” (Kalak, 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)
Teaming up with Stanton is an astute move by the UN. Via the HONY blog and Facebook page, which currently has over 9 million followers, he has shared the portraits of thousands of New Yorkers, alongside short quotes from those pictured. This sounds like a simple undertaking, but Stanton’s skill lies both in his choice of who to photograph – he shows the true diversity of the people of New York in his images – and his ability to get strangers to reveal intimate details about their lives (in a conversation that may only take a matter of minutes), and then use this information with delicacy and respect. His project is a truly ‘human’ one, revealing the vast commonalities in all our lives, and in our hopes and dreams, no matter how different our day-to-day circumstances may be.
His world tour will take in ten countries, the first one being Iraq. That his arrival there has coincided with a point of crisis and conflict in the country, which is headline news around the world, is coincidental – the trip was apparently long planned – but this has made Stanton’s images seem more relevant and important than ever. In the portraits taken so far, we have heard the stories of people from different aspects of Iraqi society, though nearly all have been affected by war. A number of the Iraq images are shown here, alongside the text that appears with them on the HONY site, plus one image taken in Jordan, shown top, where Stanton has recently arrived on the second stage of the tour.
“I was going to one of my first exams, and suddenly there was a bombing. In downtown Damascus! I couldn’t believe it! I didn’t think this was possible. Windows were broken everywhere, and there were people on the ground, and the sounds of ambulances. Then over the next few weeks, everything changed. The taxis in the streets were replaced by tanks. You no longer knew who was your friend and who was your enemy. Suddenly you could be killed, and nobody would ask why. Before war, you have rights. People will ask why you were killed. When war comes, nobody asks why you were killed anymore.” (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)
This is not the first time that Stanton has ventured outside New York with his portraiture project: in 2011, he visited Iran to photograph the citizens there. Looking at this early project on his blog, however, it is possible to see how Stanton has honed the format of his work since then. Whereas the quotes accompanying his images from Iran are mainly observational or, if they come directly from the subjects, very minimal, he has developed this aspect of his work considerably in the years since, so the portraits have become more personal, and more revealing. In the film below, recorded at a lecture he gave to University College Dublin, he talks through the process he now uses to get the people he approaches to open up.
“I’m living a good life. I’m a business owner. A lot of hotels say, ‘Come shine shoes for us. We will pay you better.’ I tell them: ‘Why would I do that? I am free.’” (Shaqlawa, Iraq)
As the images have become more intimate, the reactions from the public have in turn increased. Each new story posted onto the HONY Facebook page garners thousands of likes and comments, and while Stanton has wrestled with how to handle negative remarks to his images, eventually settling to remove comments that are personally obnoxious towards those featured, it is clear that his work strikes a deep chord with his followers.
After Jordan, Stanton will travel to Africa, where he will visit Uganda, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with other countries planned on the trip including India and Vietnam. According to the HONY blog, the purpose of the tour is in part to raise awareness of the UN’s Millennium Goals, a series of eight objectives including the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, the reduction of child mortality and the combating of HIV, Malaria and other diseases, which the UN member states aim to achieve by 2015. But more than that it is to tell the stories of individuals – not, according to Stanton, to “say” anything about the world, “but rather to visit some faraway places and to listen to as many people as possible”.
“We just want to be together and not be afraid.” (Erbil, Iraq)