by Sarah Grace
In the photo, a grandmother in white sits beside a small boy in a striped sweater that matches his socks and his father’s t-shirt. The man cradles his son’s head with his hand. All three sit a bit too close on a bed covered in bright but worn lavender velvet.
Their proximity might have been a choice by the photographer, Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York fame. But below the beautiful photo, the old woman is given the opportunity to explain it herself:
“…No one wants to leave home at my age. But I left because I have six sons, and I knew one day the soldiers would come for them. My sons weren’t political. They wanted nothing to do with killing, but that didn’t matter. Good people and bad people were all being treated the same way. I watched soldiers take away the neighbors’ boys with my own eyes. They were good boys. I’d known them their whole lives. But they were led away like sheep. They didn’t even speak up because if they opened their mouths they’d be shot. I knew it was only a matter of time before they came to our house. We left everything behind, but now my family is safe. So I am happy.” (Humans of New York; Amman, Jordan; December 2nd, 2015)
Still, in the second part of her interview (this time accompanied by a shot of just her and her son) she continues:
“The word ‘family’ is a painful word for me now. The war scattered my children all over the world. They are in Syria, Lebanon, Germany, and Jordan. I love all my children, but this one here is my soul. He’s always taken care of me. – I don’t know what I will do without him.” (Humans of New York; Amman, Jordan; December 2nd, 2015)
All three of the people in the photographs (shown below) are Syrian refugees. The man and his son are headed for a new home in Memphis, Tennessee. The old woman’s fate has not been decided.
Humans and Brandon Stanton
Stanton began ‘Humans of New York’ in 2010 as a one-man operation. He talked to strangers on the streets of New York and took their portrait, then posted the results on social media. He stayed local for several years, building a strong fan base, and spawning several copycats, such as ‘Humans of Boston’.
However, these photographs and the accompanying interview comprise a small part of the work that Stanton has done over the past several years to give a voice to the millions of displaced Syrians.
Stanton’s audience numbers in the millions on both the Facebook page (over 16.3 million likes) and the Tumblr-based site itself. He also has a growing presence on Twitter with approximately 373,000 followers.
This impressive online audience apparently includes President Barack Obama, who commented Thursday on another man’s story from this collection on Syrian refugees coming to America. He called the man’s story “an inspiration”:
“As a husband and a father, I cannot even begin to imagine the loss you’ve endured. You and your family are an inspiration. I know that the great people of Michigan will embrace you with the compassion and support you deserve. Yes, you can still make a difference in the world, and we’re proud that you’ll pursue your dreams here. Welcome to your new home. You’re part of what makes America great.”
Numbers and Narratives
Josef Stalin famously said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
‘Humans of New York’ still covers the single tragedies of the situation, and there are other classic news sources which do the same.
However, the Syrian refugee crisis reached a scale digestible only through statistics several years ago. More recently, the situation has been crowned with superlatives like:
- “Largest refugee displacement since WWII” (International Medical Corps)
- “One of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st Century” (Economist).
- “Biggest humanitarian emergency of our era” (U.N. via NPR)
The last title was actually part of a headline. These statistics, impressive as they are, have obscured coverage of the individual tragedies that comprise them in meaningful ways.
Many websites or news articles which offer figures as to the exact number of displaced Syrians have not been updated in several months. Numbers are important for informing policy and aid. However, when titles like the ones above get applied to a situation, solutions matter more than statistics.
Despite the first major waves of Syrian refugees being accepted to Canada and the U.S., according to the U.N. Refugee Agency, there is “no end in sight to the crisis.”
The immediate cause of the Syrian refugee crisis is somewhat easy to isolate, and fairly incontestable: the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. However, the war itself is not so simple for many reasons, including the involvement of I.S.I.S. According to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the war “continues to worsen and bleed beyond its borders.”
Even 2014 figures estimate that there are over 9 million displaced Syrian refugees, some still within the country itself. Solutions to the war may result in the restoration of a stable homeland to which these people could return. However, the refugees must survive in order for that to happen. The magnitude and inherent chaos of the problem of that survival beyond Syrian borders is part of what has generated all those superlatives.
Empathy and Economy
One of the core components of the Syrian refugee crisis is the lack of resources for refugees. A huge portion of these resources come from donations.
A March article from The Guardian outlines scientific research into motivations behind philanthropy. The research they cite found that “facts and figures are less attractive than narratives.” Altruism therefore has stronger links to social instincts than to rational ones.
Despite awareness that high impact causes should receive their donations, people are “much more responsive to charitable pleas that feature a single, identifiable beneficiary, than they are to statistical information about the scale of the problem being faced.”
Stalin’s quote aligns itself well with these findings.
If the Syrian refugee crisis is “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era,” it is also the highest possible impact cause. It should be receiving corresponding donations from around the world.
However, many charities cite, and have for several years, that the aid received does not come close to meeting the need.
Representation of Syrian refugees will continue to inform and shape the public’s perception of them. This in turn, determines the course of action taken by individuals and the elected officials they choose in European and North American countries. Changing the response means changing the representation.
A Story Worth 1,000 Statistics
For ‘Humans of New York,’ Stanton never inserts himself into into the frame, and rarely into the interviews. Each post is a portrait of a person, composed of a picture and the subject’s story in their own words.
This streamlined format demonstrates Stanton’s faith in his subject. It allows exceptional stories to stand on their own feet, like that of the Syrian man who inspired the President.
Stanton’s masthead has the word ‘humans’ in it for good reason. No matter whom he talks to, that person comes across as a dimensional human being. Where in a conventional news source readers would meet refugees, in the ‘Humans of New York’ coverage, they find people. They find people and their families… all of whom happen to be in unimaginable situations, and all of whom happen to be Syrian. All of these people can also be helped.
Hopefully the science is right that listening to individuals will mean caring for the cause. Stanton has already demonstrated that the format he uses can powerfully and meaningfully transmit stories. These narratives have had the power to inspire the most powerful man in the Western world.
Still, ‘Humans of New York’ is not journalism. Stanton does not tell a story, or frame an issue through extensive thought and research.
He finds sources, and lets them speak.