Is Humans of New York Unethical?

posted in: ethics, Journalism, new media | 0

Humans of New YorkThere’s an article making the rounds this week that’s a scathing critique of Humans of New York. HONY, as it’s known to its fans, is the insanely popular blog launched by Brandon Stanton, a former bond trader turned photographer. The blog features photos of New Yorkers along with short but thought-provoking interview quotes. A recent example: a photo of a young woman snapped at mid-range with the caption “I saved up enough to move into a studio. I’ve got my own spot now. It’s better than any of the foster homes I’ve ever lived in. Because when I turn the key in that door, it’s mine.”

With 11.5 million Facebook fans and two bestselling books, HONY is one of the most popular social media brands ever launched. But now comes On Sentimentality: A Critique of Humans of New York, an article that not only goes after HONY for being sentimental schlock, but also for being “one of the most glaring threats to humanity” itself:

While claiming to define the population of New York, it presents a whitewashed image of an earnest, vibrant city that takes place predominantly in Manhattan, during the day. The individuals featured are only those Stanton feels comfortable approaching, those he deems interesting enough to photograph, who do not take offense to an intrusive white man’s request to commodify their images.

While Stanton displays little formal or creative photographic prowess, his success lies in his ability to operate a camera to the desired effect and to persuade thousands of subjects to pose. Both of these, however, are worthy of critique. In describing his working methods, Stanton uses the most dangerous vocabulary of photography—words that sound unnervingly like those of a poacher. In maintaining his “competitive advantage,” he endeavors to keep his subjects comfortable, preferring those standing alone, and never approaches from behind in order to “capture” people and ease them into “the interview” with “escalating levels of intimacy.” And—par for the course—his goal is not to establish meaningful, measured relationships with the people he encounters, but to extract a sufficiently revealing line for the blog with as little engagement as possible.

This is just bizarre. Yes, there’s plenty to criticize about HONY (and I say this as someone who’s a fan of the blog): the photos never rise about the vacation snapshot level, the quotes are often sentimental and sometimes cloying and yes, as a white man Brandon has a freedom to approach people on the street that wouldn’t be possible for someone who’s black or a woman. But the quote above is true of every journalist and artist ever. You’re always representing things through your own lens. And any time you sell a photo or an article, you are commodifying someone’s image or life experience.

Is this ethically problematic? Absolutely. But it isn’t a problem unique to HONY. Everyone who’s ever sold a magazine article or photo has faced the same dilemma. No reporter or photographer ever just verbatim quotes what they see. Unless you’re posting an exact transcript of the interview or a contact sheet with all the photos you took of that session, you are always cherry picking what you want to show to support your narrative.

Reporters and photographers are never neutral observers. Observation is always informed by the person’s gender, race, class, and life experiences and also the demands of commerce: the magazine is only paying me for 600 words, the newspaper is only going to run one photo. And then there’s the changes/choices the editor will make: Is this story going on the front page? Is it the featured story on the website landing page?

Returning again to ethics, I’ll never forget covering a story about a man who was accidentally killed by a stray bullet fired by a 16 year old kid. I went to the wife’s house for an interview and found her on the floor screaming incoherently. And I felt like utter crap because we were taking this woman’s agony and making it into a banner headline on the front page of the paper. I got an A1 story out of it and the paper sold more copies for profit but what did the woman get out of having her pain commodified?

These are issues that I think younger people instinctively understand better than older people. Teens and young adults grew up constructing different identities online so they understand that view of reality presented by the media is also constructed. And I think this is a good thing. While I ultimately the HONY critique is wildly over the top, it’s a good opportunity to take a long, hard look at our own work and what we’re choosing to represent and why. More awareness of these issues is always a good thing.

About Alisa

I'm a writer, blogger and social media specialist with nearly 15 years experience in medical and science writing for organizations that include Caltech and UCLA, as well as non-profit fundraising and political organizing. I specialize in making complex information clear and compelling. Learn more about my work here