Arts and Entertainment

“Humans of New York: The Series”

Brandon Stanton’s “Humans of New York: The Series” Facebook show is beautiful, but relatively uninteresting—we could have expected more from filmed work.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Anika Hashem

When you watch Brandon Stanton’s “Humans of New York: The Series” for a minute, the most normal of people become as interesting to you as they are to themselves.

The most iconic of all of Stanton’s work as we know it are the Facebook and Instagram posts of grandfathers who have lived many lives, four-year-old microfashionistas clad in vivid colors, driven entrepreneurs, and teenage subway performers whose art is their living. In the HONY Series, these characters are reincarnated in film with their raspy, timid, or boisterous voices and idiosyncrasies in movement, allowing another layer of personality to transcend the limitations of a computer screen.

“HONY: The Series” continues the intimate features of outstanding and average, thoughtful people. One episode of Stanton’s newest venture features a guitarist who shares his darkest fear of “getting too old to be appreciated” and then plays a song. It makes us realize that we hide this same fear while a newfound appreciation of this musician blooms within us: we don't want him to ever be or feel too old.

A preteen remarks, “You’re gonna outgrow everything, eventually. You’re just gonna lose everything. I just don’t wanna let go,” and makes us nostalgic for everything we've outgrown or if we're young, everything we will soon outgrow.

An old lady draped in pink, sitting on her stoop, refuses to disclose anything about her life and adds with sass, “If I made a movie of my life, I would win 500 awards. Not 100, 500.”

If these people were captured in photographs, we would not hear the first man's guitar, the meditation in the kid's voice as he contemplates the right wording, or the distinctive attitude of the woman.

Stanton establishes throughout that all people are artists in their own right, be it through their words, their profession, their dress, or some recounted creative endeavor from decades past. The Series reestablishes this, while further humanizing subjects through the recordings.

Stanton's experimentation with new content and medium is nothing new—he periodically undertakes new endeavors to spice up his work. In the past, he expanded beyond New York City and traveled to 20 diverse countries, such as India, Iraq, Ukraine, and Uganda. He has also compiled his many encounters into New York Times bestselling books.

With millions of supporters already following his page—hundreds, if not thousands, from our very own Stuyvesant High School—the Series has a high bar to meet. In going to another country, the different cultures and people were new and interesting, but his role as an interviewer remained the same. In his book, the medium was still essentially photography, so it made sense to see similar content and formatting to what we do on a computer screen. Venturing into film, however, demanded something more.

“HONY: The Series” should be something more raw and distinctive in its representation of New Yorkers than HONY photography. So much can be done with film as a medium. It offers the power of a more complete story—it ties together different people, different ends. It can have a more compelling and apparent plot than any photograph or caption, and it allows for more character development. The Series, however, doesn’t fully realize film’s potential to tell cohesive, overarching stories, and is, instead, closer to being an extension of the photographic medium.

Each episode of the Series is based on a theme overflowing with human relevance: help, stardom, parenting, time, or home. Every story has a strong connection to this one-word theme. The episode “Help” features a businessman learning to do the little deeds he could for people. Another explores the enrichment of the life of an elderly man paired with a volunteer by a Nazi victims organization through their shared love of dance. The final example is of a man whose dog has always been there for him, and of whom he is ready to let go.

Though these topics are relevant, the individual stories within each episode, while all addressing the same themes, are insufficiently linked to one another. It’s like a patchwork quilt where everything is the same material, but the designs don’t complement one another. Stanton initially succeeds in intriguing us with a short profound segment, a metaphor, or an oddity. Some of the appeal, however, dies by the end of the 15-minute long segments. We need a reason to watch 15 minutes of a continuous clip, rather than the shorter videoclips plastered on social media.

Many of the episodes are still powerful. “Help,” for example, is one of my favorites, but more for the fact that each individual story is affective, rather than the video’s overall cohesion. The lack of a plot, or some other clear intrigue, is likely a reason that the views on these episodes on Facebook have fallen from seven to eight million views on early videos to half the amount on later videos. The episodes can be very meaningful, and watching them should feel less tedious.

Though the content may lack excitement, the cinematography of the HONY Series is beautiful, combining profiles and direct views of speakers’ faces with time lapses of crowds passing over subway staircases, of the NYC skyline at dusk through night, or of the scintillating lights of Times Square, overlaid with R&B beats.

“Humans of New York: The Series” is a beautiful piece of artwork. We find bolder personality by not only reading, but hearing voices. Nonetheless, it could capitalize more on the use of film as a medium and on the continuity of a lengthy video to create something as beautiful and more captivating. If HONY is going to be something new, why not embrace its newness?