I saw a recently published article on my Facebook news feed titled, “On Sentimentality: A Critique of Humans of New York,” written by Melissa Smyth. Humans of New York or HONY, in case you haven’t heard of it, is a photoblog founded and run by a guy called Brandon Stanton with a huge Facebook following (about 12 million strong).
The article is long and uses a lot of big words. Some parts were quite interesting: HONY’s censorship of its commenters; something Stanton said to his “objectors” which I found a tad too cloying and presumptuous (“I’m sure we actually have the same worldview. No doubt we are walking arm-in-arm toward the bright dawn of a new day”); references to other, older projects taking portraits of ordinary people.
Smyth writes that HONY “buttresses the status quo through a poisonous insistence upon its own apolitical nature,” that the site threatened humanity “in its pretension of representing all of its diversity through the lens of a single individual,” that HONY’s censorship of comments revealed “an aversion to intellectual engagement on the blog—anything that might push the content beyond mere sentimentality” and revealed its “marked defense of the privilege of purported colorblindness.”
Reading the article though, I couldn’t quite shake off a question at the back of my mind… What did she expect?
My somewhat more cynical opinion is that HONY does not, and as far as I’m aware never did, purport to champion or portray anything beyond sentimentality and sameness. I think HONY’s (and in turn, Stanton’s) goals never included going against status quo. I don’t think Stanton’s lofty aims for the blog ever included “To foster healthy, learned debates on social media” over his crisp, polished photos. His goals were more likely a little more selfish, a little more closer to home.
HONY was started, and is still mainly run, by one man. It’s his personal perspective of his environment — and, as with all personal perspectives and opinions, should be taken with a grain of salt.
He seems to be very vocal over his blog’s apolitical nature. In other words, he’s not making any sort of deep commentary even when he takes photos of the homeless and the disabled, of New York’s minorities, of jaded teachers. He doesn’t want to participate in the heavy stuff, even though you want him to and hope he does.
To demand of one person’s pet project all the things that Smyth demands, I think, is to set oneself up for heartbreak.
I feel Gawker’s Daniel D’Addario (which Smyth’s article also references) described HONY better when he wrote:
“It appears that Stanton sees people not as people but as vectors of how young, white New Yorkers see them. One hardly need to read the captions, which are drawn from conversations Stanton has with his subjects—the sentences he chooses are never surprising or enlightening. They’re designed to confirm safe assumptions about the inner lives, or lack thereof, of everyone in New York.
Obviously, the site isn’t journalism—it’s documenting nothing more than Stanton’s own viewpoint and, now, how much he evidently enjoys being a known quantity. And art thrives on the unexpected, so it’s not that. Humans of New York is, as Stanton pushes his book and finds fans on the street, neither human nor, really, of New York.”
Sorry to disappoint, but there’s nothing behind the curtain. There never was.