feeling feelings

Saving Humans of New York's Face

6:00:00 AMGrace Davies




We've all seen the heartwarming, personally captioned photos posted by Humans of New York.  

They're cute.  They're colorful.  They're personal. They're unique.  

I've often enjoyed  the heartwarming feelings that come from browsing HONY's photos as I scroll down my newsfeed.  But I never paused to give my feelings a serious thought.  

I never considered the deeper issues involved, until I read Melissa Smyth's article "On Sentimentality: A Critique of Humans of New York."  This article gave me pause. (1) 

In her article, Smyth shares a video of Brandon Stanton, founder of HONY, explaining how he approaches strangers on the street in order to obtain their photo.   


In this video, Stanton describes his strategy to achieve "escalating levels of intimacy" with random strangers on the streets of New York City.  It begins with the approach.  He says: 


"One thing I always look for is people standing alone ..." 

 And he never approaches them from behind.  So far, he could be taking about trying not to frighten an animal in the street. 

Stanton sums up his goal in the following words: 


"stopping random people in the street and getting them to let me take their photograph ... taking an atmosphere of, kind of, fear and strangeness, and uncomfortableness, and turning that into an atmosphere of intimacy."  

He will ask a broad question and then try to peel away layers until the person share something personal:


"You don't really reveal anything about yourself by saying 'seize the day.' But when you're asked to tell about a time that you didn't seize the day, then you're kind of forced to reveal about yourself."   
Once Stanton has obtained a good photo and a revealing quote from the person, he generally moves on. 

HONY gives random people, like myself, the opportunity to half-heartedly glance at photos of other human beings, to experience a mild sentiment in response to something deeply personal that they shared, and then to keep scrolling.

Scrolling

This is the problem.  I do enough scrolling in my life.  I barely glance at the people I walk by.  I scroll right on by them, without ever bothering to see them as a living, breathing person.  Even if the sight of them causes me to feel some warm, fuzzy sentiment, I have not stopped to know them.  I have not been challenged to love them.  

In his work The Heart, Dietrich von Hildebrand says that 


"sentimentality is a perverted and mediocre feeling." (2) 

Mere sentiment is shallow and thoroughly uncommitted.  It keeps the other person at a distance.  There is no real intimacy here, only an illusion.    

Now, I don't deny that HONY can have a positive impact.  Stanton's photos serve as a reminder that every face has a story behind it.  And I really do appreciate that reminder.  Furthermore, Stanton has recently taken on some charitable work; we've all heard about his efforts on behalf of the underprivileged kids at Mott Hall Bridges Academy.  This shows a level of commitment and depth that balances out his project.  

But one aspect which still seems problematic about Stanton's project is that it can tend toward use.  Insofar as HONY has become a business, it is difficult to maintain integrity in its methodology.  It will take extra vigilance on Stanton’s part to make sure that he is not merely using the people he approaches, or merely extracting something from them to display on his wall with a pithy quote over it, making them into a commodity to elicit a sentimental feeling from his viewers.

Sentimentality involves a distortion in the way we see people; again from The Heart: 


"The object assumes the role of a means whose function is to provide us with a certain kind of feeling." (3) 

It seems to me that the humans of New York are exposed to being seen and used in this way when they are framed on HONY's wall.

The danger comes not only from Stanton's attitude, but also from his viewers.  He garners intimate information from people, and then displays it (along with their faces) to potentially indifferent eyes.  

Each of those humans is precious.  Their stories are meaningful and personal.  And it doesn't seem right that they be exposed to the shallow, indifferent world of scrolling.  Each of them deserves better than that.  



They deserve to be known by someone who cares about them: someone who is not about to walk away or scroll right past them.  Their dignity demands the serious and deep response of genuine love - not a mild interest and a fleeting sentimentality. 

What's the solution here? 

As far as Stanton's methodology goes, it will be up to him to maintain integrity and a proper reverence for the people he approaches.  And based on his recent charitable work with Mott Hall Bridges Academy, it looks like he's moving in the right direction.  

 But the other half of the problem is on our end, as the viewers of HONY's photos.  Dietrich von Hildebrand can point us to a solution for the personal problem of sentimentality.  The antidote to the attitude of indifferently scrolling past people, in a word, is love: 

"The real antithesis to sentimentality is the genuine feeling of a noble and deep heart ..." (4) 

Perhaps if my own outlook - my own heart - was changed, there would be no danger at all in HONY's project.  Stanton's unique reminder that each face has a story behind it could actually become something profound, if it were combined with the noble response of love on the part of the viewer.

I am reminded of a piece of wisdom my older sister shared with me once.  She said: 


"You know, you should never judge people.  Because everyone has suffered some tragedy in their life, and you don't know if you would have been able to survive the same thing." 

Were I to approach HONY's portraits with this attitude, I imagine that they could become the occasion of a genuine and noble reverence.  And the humans of New York City really deserve no less than that.  


(1) "Sentimentality: A Critique of Humans of New York," text.
(2) "Brandon Stanton Interview, video.
(3)  Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Heart (Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2007), 15.
(4)  Hildebrand, The Heart, 9.
(5) Stanton Fundraising Campaign, link
(6) Hildebrand, The Heart, 15.  

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1 comments

  1. I wish there were more places like this, because it was simply too amazing for words. I came to New York city party with my boyfriend the other night, and it was absolutely fabulous. The use of wood throughout the place adds a very warm and inviting feel to venue.

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