Reading Online: Watching Humans

There is a certain subset of contemporary culture, especially online culture, that is hungry for authenticity and craves being presented with it, preferably in easy to digest snippets.

I am, I have to admit, quite a bit of a follower of this myself, having been a huge fan of Davy Rothbart’s Found Magazine and, to a lesser degree, of Post Secret, This American Life, and other projects and publishers who offer unfiltered glimpses into the intriguing thoughts and private ides of other people in all of their diversity and everyday lives, things I, as an individual, would never have been privy to before. These stories culled from the lives of others, found, or submitted, or just caught on film,  whether humorous, heartbreaking, or anything in between, definitely appeal to a lot of people, myself among them.

It’s true, I’m a sucker for this stuff. The internet seems to be a perfect environment for this type of voyeuristic people watching, some obsessive putting together a website or blog for their specific interest, establishing an audience, and then spawning the inevitable book. A prototypical example is Humans of New York (aka, HONY), photographer Brandon Stanton’s project cataloging the human diversity of New York by posting pictures of people he sees on the streets of Manhattan.  Before having heard of the blog, I happened upon HONY’s first book at the library a few years ago.  A collection of photos from the synonymous blog, I quickly devoured it, and in fact, I enjoyed it so much I slapped a 5 star rating on it on Goodreads at the time, gushing about its “inspiring showcase of the diversity and character of NYC” (a metropolis I have still not visited myself). In the end, I pondered what a similar project would be like in another city.  

A few years later, I began seeing a local blog popping up on my feeds, which had started, in an unrelated coincidence, around the same time as HONY, Minneapolis Strangers, the photoblog of Stephanie Glaros. Her project soon morphed into a similar showcase of portraits of the diverse citizens of an urban area, in this case, my own Minneapolis. So of course, when I saw a new Humans of Minneapolis book at a local shop, I put in a request at the library and,  at the same time noticed HONY had put out another book as well, Humans of New York: Stories, this time delving into more detailed interviews with its subjects. I of course requested that one too.

However, upon mentioning these new publications I was reading to a friend, she kind of winced and shared her opinion of the slightly pretentious, mawkish sentiments behind HONY. I could not deny that she was right! There is a certain exploitative, “feel-good” type of schmaltz endemic in them that I just couldn’t look away from once noted, it’s “all walks of life” superficial glimpses into the urban population perfect for a gentrified type of background to relish experiencing remotely. Even as I, just one of these upwardly mobile urban types could not deny my attraction to it, I also could no longer ignore the more problematic aspects.  Are these really their stories to tell, or our stories to interpret?

Humans of Minneapolis and Humans of New York: Stories both took a similar approach to their print publications, which expanded from the mere photos of and comments on, or short statements from, it’s human subjects in the original Humans of New York. I think Glaros had been taking this approach earlier, filling her blog with audio interviews the featured individuals, while in Stories, Stanton notes the transformation of his “photography blog” to a “storytelling blog.” With these parallels, it was interesting to compare and contrast the depictions each photographer had of their city and its populations.

24019187For instance, in this latest HONY book, Stanton himself remains absent from the interior accept as the lens through which these people’s lives enter our own, including his own occasionally somewhat condescending commentary. He tends to focus on the eccentrics and the eye catching, showing us the side of New York that is outrageous and wild, in addition to the calmer, more introspective scenes; people discussing their relationships to their families, or addictions, or personal tragedies. However, even with the expanded room for “storytelling” Stanton afforded many (though certainly not the majority) of his subjects, there was something easy, superficial about the accounts, whether the punk afraid her band is “getting too poppy,” or the elderly man sorting through books who tell us “I don’t’ believe in anything.”

Humans of Minneapolis is certainly not immune to this either, this voyeuristic aspect that treats other lives as attractions in the urban environment. In contrast, however, Glaros includes images of herself taking photos with her subjects, allowing us a view of the person behind the images we are seeing, that they represent the viewpoints of a specific person with her own ideas and goals. However, in her entries focusing on the areas of downtown Minneapolis (with locales such as the Mill District, the Minneapolis Central Library, Nicollet Mall, and Loring Park evident), she appears to favor more “ordinary” people, diverse humans heading to or from work or school or just hanging out. The dapper Somali man proud of his independent business, for instance, or the medical worker outside HCMC who tells that she “would hate to see Minneapolis completely homogenized and cleaned up, like what happened in New York.” Oooh, dig!33100103

Both feature a wide variety of subjects illustrating some of the people who can be found downtown, immigrants and teenagers, idealists and cynics, the whole gamut of the urban American experience. Taken as they are on the streets of these major cities, though, another thing both have in common is a depiction of homelessness and mental illness in our society, and both offer many glimpses into the lives of people living on the streets. This provides an interesting case study of how they try to tell these stories. By showing how people, regardless of their circumstances or backgrounds, can have relatable thoughts, feelings, and ideas, such works are able to humanize them to an extent. On the other hand, there is also a kind of voyeuristic lens that wants to gaze at the bizarre without offering anything to help; the homeless man on the streets of Manhattan who weeps as he tells too completely contradictory stories about his plight, or the man on Hennepin who stares angrily at the camera and tells us simply, “I live on the streets, for real.” Particularly, the New York man who informs Stanton (and us) “you’re not finding out a thing about me,” illustrates the contradictions of the photoblog.

In spite of this, I did enjoy both of them, and the glimpses into the vibrant city life each gives the viewer from two very different American cities, though one also must question even your own motives for picking up the book or following the blog. At their worst, these photos and soundbites may paint the disadvantaged, voiceless populations of the cities in broad brushes, either milking them for easy pathos or making light of their “harmless eccentricities.” “Yep, there’s weird people out there in the city, isn’t that cool?” “Oh, that’s so tragic!” “Hey, this person of color agrees with us that race isn’t the problem, it’s class!” On the other hand, at their best, by offering these different perspectives on the human condition, of a few specific people living currently in the United States, Minnesota or New York, one can discover that perhaps one’s own perspective or experience is not only not unique, but one of many. In the end, I feel that Stephanie Glaros, in her project, generally affords more of a voice to her subjects, and, in general, avoids some of the more problematic aspects of this type of thing a bit better than Stanton’s (Of course, that might be my regional Minnesotan bias showing!).

Similarly, I have also enjoyed listening to the Moth Radio Hour on NPR, which, along with my perennial fave This American Life, has come to be one of my favorite public radio programs. “True stories told before a live audience,” this too is another example of interest in authenticity. I also rated its first publication 5 stars after I read it a few years ago, which compiled some of these personal narratives shared on stage over the years. Ranging from prisoners to astronauts, famous musicians to college students, all telling in their own voices the challenges, triumphs, and defeats of their human existences. Coming from this great diversity of backgrounds, each of these personal narratives, shared by people on the stage, delve into the myriad paths of human life. The same can be said for the latest publication from the Moth, All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown.

30901606I enjoyed the forty-five stories included in this collection, edited lightly for the page, and the insights into the human experience they stories provide, from humor, to despair, triumph to survival. By “unknown,” the participants mean confronting aspects of life that they have no control over or knowledge of, including of religion and other cultures, which I really identify with as I continue to stumble through life. It is true, though, that the majority of the storytellers are prominent professionals in their fields, and often well known writers themselves, so the more universal themes are filtered through a more polished viewpoint. With an introduction by Neil Gaiman himself and featuring tales from quite a few famous comedians, it is also interesting how, even those who have accomplished much in life suffer doubts. In addition, the stories as written lack the special benefits of listening to the storytellers’ voices, their inflections and emotion providing so much to the narratives, it nonetheless is a great collection and recommended for both fans of the show and those new to it.

In the end, both the Humans books and the Moth publications are interesting, thought provoking looks into human life, but are also spin offs of projects perhaps better suited to their digital and audio originals. Of course, both are lacking in some of the things that increase their power in its digital forms, whether interactivity or just the audio. In addition, much of their contents are already available online. Still, for those days you find yourself cut off from technology due to a storm or being in the middle of nowhere, having these print versions stable and preserved allow you to enjoy them permanently. In the end, this may be the best way to preserve the best of the often ephemeral. online world.


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