BACK TO THE FUTURE WITH HUMANS OF NEW YORK
100 years apart, the humanitarian mission of Brandon Stanton and Albert Kahn
by Claire Healy
Can you remember the saddest moment of your life? How do these images make you feel? How do they make your virtual self feel? If you’re any one of photographer Brandon Stanton’s 10,761,234 (and counting) Facebook fans, the probability is you will have “Liked”, “Shared” or even replied to any of these narrators within seconds. Humans of New York, Stanton’s street photography blog, is the social networking success story of the last five years, and it echoes parisian photographer Albert Khan’s work, a hundred years after he produced a similar project. As human beings, we long to share our stories. A century apart, Stanton and Khan both give voices to the ignored, and demonstrate the importance of everyone’s narrative through their photography.
Stanton’s increasingly humanitarian stance works to re-prioritize what ‘success’ in a networked world might mean. Stanton, with no professional background in photography, moved to New York in 2010 with the goal of taking 10,000 photos of its everyday inhabitants. The photographs, broadcast daily and always accompanied with an intimate quote from their subjects, were picked up by the UN late last year; it is with their backing that Stanton embarked on an unprecedented world tour from August through September. The purpose of the trip, which spanned 25,000 miles and 10 countries, was to raise awareness for the UN’s Millennium Development Goals – to quote Stanton, in typically unembellished style, they’re basically “stuff that everyone can agree the world needs.”
Relocating his photographic project from unwitting New Yorkers to the rest of the world, Stanton’s work takes on the weight of a humanitarian mission. One hundred years earlier, in Paris, a similarly ambitious career-changer embarked on his own photographic mission to record the peoples of the world. The time jump requires a Gallic shift: to Paris, and millionaire philanthropist Albert Kahn. From 1909 to 1939, Kahn launched his own world tour: along with a team of photographers and the latest full colour Autochrome technology, Kahn would go on to record over 100 hours of film and 720,000 photographs in all corners of the globe. Much like Brandon Stanton, Kahn’s mission was founded on a simple idealism: that it is through visual images that cross-cultural peace and understanding can be founded. Working some hundred years apart from one another, both Kahn and Stanton’s projects are powerfully positivist, and vivid in their record of collective cultural life.
In an article describing his essential discomfiture with 2012’s Finding Vivian Maier documentary, Nathan Jurgensen notes the problems with forcing a “social media ethos of see, take, and score” onto photographers working so many years earlier: “She would have had so many Instagram followers!” Whilst Kahn’s archive of the world never garnered the public profile that their creator would have wanted – my own rediscovery was largely down to the BBC’s 2007 series and accompanying book – it would be best to apply a similar degree of caution when it comes to bringing the attention economy to bear upon his turn-of-the-century photography. Nevertheless, both Kahn and Stanton occupy significant roles as both participant and observer of their respective societies and culture.
A guiding principle behind both Kahn and Stanton’s photography seems to be a tension between history and evolution. For Kahn, this reveals itself through photographs that capture sweeping historical change as much as they do a timeless interiority and personality in the eyes of each subject – the cultures and customs captured are a world preserved, but vanished; remote, but familiar. Stories told of dark childhoods escaped, loves found (only to be lost) and the utterly, desperately alone, combine for images that, speaking less than a thousand words, mean so much more for it. Whether it is the ‘Little Human’ gawping at the lens, or a crouched figure with more age lines than things left to say, the myriad faces in these photographs – in 1914 or 2014 – speak of a human fallibility, and sadness, that remains. These are photos that tell us whilst the mise-en-scene has changed dramatically, people – humans – have not.
As we witness an archive of the world forming through “Humans of…”, we can feel the benefits of a record that lives and breathes through social media. These photographs – at home in the world, at home in your feed – are a living call to action. As Stanton himself says of his Humans of New Earth, “The point of the trip is not to "say" anything about the world. But rather to visit some faraway places, and listen to as many people as possible.” There’s no way we can know what Kahn’s subjects said all those years ago. But we can certainly look at the bigger picture.