Brandon Stanton, founder of the blog Humans of New York
Following the Paris attacks and their successful terrorization of the American public, empathy has become a national security imperative. The primary races for the 2016 presidential campaign have shone a painfully bright spotlight on the ugliest side of the American body politic — Syrian refugees have drawn comparisons to rabid dogs and tainted peanuts, and an outright ban on Muslims entering the United States has become a central pillar of a Republican frontrunner. The better angels of America’s nature seem to have taken flight at the sight of the al-Baghdadi bogeyman, with leading politicians feeding into a climate of fear in which reactionary and short-sighted foreign policy can thrive.
Simultaneously, a less intense debate has continued on elsewhere regarding the widely enjoyed blog, Humans of New York, and its most recent print release, “Stories.” While many question the value of blogger Brandon Stanton’s work, its true value as a daily exercise in empathy is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the realm of foreign policy, and may yet hold lessons for an American people, and government, sorely in need.
An Iranian Introduction
A New York Times best-seller, “Stories” is a collection of photos and typically short quotes, intended as small, if transient, windows into the lives of New York City’s diverse inhabitants. The work is the third print extension of Humans of New York, otherwise known by its acronym, HONY. With over 15 million followers on Facebook, and hundreds of thousands more across other social media outlets, HONY has become a remarkably influential global platform. Much of today’s debate rages over what belongs on this platform, and to what extent Stanton uses it to the betterment or detriment of the public weal, foreign policy included.
Recently, Stanton took his work to Iran, a nation demonized in the United States as a terrifying place whose people chant “Death to America” every Friday and whose eschatologically-minded, authoritarian, and Islamic theocrats have a penchant for stridently vocalizing anti-Semitism and existential threats. It was a topical trip, given the efforts of the Obama administration to sell the Iranian nuclear deal to an American public still recovering from the 1979 hostage crisis.
Stanton, having previously toured such countries as South Sudan and India under the auspices of the UN, had some experience with bringing a taste of life in far off countries to America’s laptop and cell phone screens. Iran, however, would be a tougher pitch than a country not previously placed on the “Axis of Evil” — sex may sell, but Manichean endures.
Such stark language is all too common in American discussions of foreign policy, as it serves to polarize and ultimately limit the range of policy options that the American public will find palatable. It is perhaps too easy to downplay the impact of fleeting snippets of Iranian daily life, and certainly no public polling has been done to measure the impact of these images on the attitudes of HONY followers regarding the state and people of Iran. However, in an age in which soft power has never been more important, and in which an organization like Islamic State (IS) can run gleeful circles around the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom on Twitter, the social power of a platform like HONY cannot be underestimated. Soft power is not merely a means of attracting foreign populations to Brand America, but also a way of convincing the American public that foreign peoples are worth engaging in the first place.
If Iranians are not simply more Muslims to be feared, but possibly even denim and American flag clad members of a burgeoning middle class, and faceless hordes of refugees on the beaches of Lesbos are not merely potential agents of IS, but people exhibiting all too human desperation, then public support for programs besides confrontation and border walls may be in the offing. Empathy has its place in foreign affairs, and amidst the cacophonous exchange between religious extremism and callous xenophobia, it is a quiet, oft forgotten voice that needs amplification.
Yet the ability to adopt the perspective of other people requires that they are seen as people in the first place. The need for a humanizing force is clear, though who or what may yet be cast as Sisyphus in this endeavor is hotly debated. While the impassioned exhortations of the humanitarian community fall on deaf ears regarding refugees, and efforts to counter the ubiquitous, dogged cyber-narrative of IS have led the State Department to recruit from the likes of Snapchat and the controversial “Zero-Dark-Thirty” writing team, Stanton continues plodding forward, one human at a time. But what, exactly, is Stanton doing, and are there really lessons for practitioners of soft power?
“This is the Type of Arrant Pedantry Up with Which I Will Not Put”
This mythologized, and likely fictitious, quip immediately sprang to mind upon reading a critique in the New Yorker of blogger Brandon Stanton’s newly released book, “Stories.” Rumored to have been Winston Churchill’s written response to an editor’s pained attempts at reworking the former’s use of prepositions, it makes light of efforts to unduly complicate. The New Yorker piece faults Stanton for doing too much by doing too little, for using his condensed, decontextualized anecdotes to tell his subjects’ stories as he sees fit, as opposed to letting them speak on their own terms. The result, it argues, is a shallow truth and a stage-managed product meant for the ready consumption of HONY followers eager for a saccharine treat. Other critics, in a long line of morally outraged obfuscations of Stanton’s work, allege that his stories flatten those he photographs and, ultimately, devalue and disempower them.
Additional criticism takes issue with Stanton for not being a modern day Jacob Riis or other well-known photojournalist. In the case of the New Yorker, the charge relates to failing to deliver the full depth of real stories. In the case of several others, blame is levelled for dodging deeper explorations of the social issues inherent to every photograph and caption.
While HONY is a constantly evolving project, Stanton has explicitly stated his current mission — telling individual stories. “I’m never trying to show what’s the same in everybody. I’m looking for what’s unique about that person,” he has said. “[W]hat I’ve identified HONY as being is not photography, and it’s not writing. I think what HONY is, is…creating a bubble of intimacy on the street where I can learn and share the stories of absolute strangers. Whether it’s New York or Iran…”. Though the New Yorker is correct in that stories is too generous of a term, and “Stories” is a title too far, excessive attention to the misnomer is more distracting than helpful, as HONY’s bubble of fleeting intimacy is what matters most.
Likewise, Stanton does not, nor did he ever, intend or desire to be a latter day Riis. His work is more reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” description of daily life in contemporary America, rather than that of a social crusader or “a counter-spy, traveling as a photographer.” HONY is a small, daily lesson in empathy for millions of people, not a tour-de-force or a call to the barricades. To judge it against “How the Other Half Lives” or “You Have Seen Their Faces” is to mistake Stanton’s limited goals for his chief failings and to overlook HONY’s real impact.
HONY’s photographs are more than cloying, feel-good moments which elicit ephemeral surges of emotion, only to recede before anything of consequence can be accomplished. The laconic excerpts Stanton typically takes from his interviews, even the longer ones used in “Stories,” place the onus of understanding back on the viewer. To interact with HONY is, often unwittingly, to be forced into inherently empathetic contemplation by those very same emotions. It is here that the lessons of HONY for soft power projection at home and abroad become apparent.
Empathy requires first that another is seen not merely as a distant other, but as an actual person. The individual or group must be made human before there can be an adoption of perspective. Humanizing a person or group of people entails shortening the distances of race, socio-economic class, or even street address, just enough so that a blurry other can be brought into momentary focus as a fellow member of humanity, and it often involves some degree of flattening. In demonstrating that each individual has a unique set of life experiences, even an Iranian air force officer, Stanton invariably shows that, on a very basic level, a degree of sameness does exist. The viewer does not know the subject, but is left to imagine what knowing them might involve. Stereotypes can be difficult to maintain in the face of photographs and captions that bestir a mixed range of reactions which tax one’s emotional vocabulary on a daily basis.
Humans of Foreign Policy?
In this light, HONY is best understood as a sustained, low-dosage campaign of marginal and widely dispersed impacts. When one seeks to establish or counter a narrative in the realm of foreign affairs, either to sway foreign populations or the American people, HONY’s model has much to offer. This is not to say that the White House should co-opt HONY for the War on Terror, but rather that HONY’s principles and methods may inadvertently be more effective than some of the work emerging from the Beltway today.
The American government is not known for telling a good story, whether it is hawking the potential benefits of the monumental Trans-Pacific Partnership or promoting “good” Islam, its efforts are typically better described as bumbling rather than compelling. Conversely, the 31 year-old former bond trader from Georgia has the power to affect public perceptions on a global level, often without most people even noticing the incremental changes his photos may have on them. If his greatest crime now is one of semantics and an overly indulgent book title, then HONY may be on the right track, after all, in ways that Stanton could never have predicted.
Chris Newton is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame, pursuing a one-year fellowship with AVSI Foundation in Juba, South Sudan.