“Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”
-James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
Sentimentality offers an escape from the difficult conclusions that must come from honest scrutiny of social reality in the United States. In today’s media landscape, photographs most viscerally ferry this indolence, for the nature of the medium facilitates sentiment’s purpose: to obscure the operative social structures with cloying cases of the individual. As protests for racial justice have continued around the hub of Ferguson since August, a particular photograph of a fabricated moment—a young black boy tearfully hugging a white cop in Portland— rudely interrupts the impetus of the movement. While the saccharine image was quickly rebuked by those supporting the protest movement, it offered others feigned evidence that racism really isn’t the problem.
The problem with sentimentality here is not the infusion of emotion into a political issue; on the contrary, it is the funneling of emotion into mute forms, preventing the marriage of thought and feeling that produces the most concentrated social action. Sentiment, in cases of social strife, obfuscates constructive empathy, perhaps the element whose disuse most directly sustains white America’s blissful and deadly ignorance.
To feel something for the image of this black boy while ignoring that in five years he may represent danger and criminality to another cop who crosses his path, that if he had been holding a toy gun rather than a “Free Hugs” sign he may have shared the fate of Tamir Rice, negates the virtue of his presence on the street that day and provides a safe alternative understanding of the racial structures that determine how much his life matters.
Such sentimental images harbor the uncommitted feeling of those who, this year in particular, have insisted upon their right to an unmarred holiday season, the very notion of which exists and thrives on the pull of sentimentality away from reality’s hardness. Underlying the heightened tensions between those hiding behind their constructions of serenity and those rejecting the possibility of “business as usual,” sentimentality reveals itself as a malignant force in the sustenance of comfortable injustice.
So, in these urgent times, it is particularly appropriate to critique the social institutions that uphold such hypocrisy, including a popular project whose very substance is the triumph of sentimentality over empathy, of platitude over inquiry, of imitation over creativity: the boldly-titled Humans of New York (HONY).
HONY is a blog—published on Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and recently in print—that features portraits taken of New Yorkers on the street by the blog’s creator, Brandon Stanton, along with quotations from his interviews with the subjects. Initially formed as an attempt to create “an exhaustive catalogue of New York City’s inhabitants,” it has become the standard bearer of all that is warm and fuzzy about “humanity.” The stories it shares celebrate people’s greatest achievements, their deepest fears and most trying struggles, along with the quirks that make them unique individuals, all collected and presented in clean digital formats for home consumption. Despite the seeming inconsequentiality of such a social media phenomenon, its irrelevance to the day’s real political matters make significant, and troubling, its incredible popularity.
One of the most glaring threats that HONY makes to humanity lies in its pretension of representing all of its diversity through the lens of a single individual. 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.
Stanton acknowledges that his success rates in “artistic” areas like the East Village are strikingly higher than in, for instance, “somewhere like Bedford-Stuyvesant,” where he makes his home. Like a haughty gentrifier, he admits, “I do tend to value the portraits from rougher neighborhoods more, because they are harder to obtain, and rarer.” The blog grows like a collection of baseball cards, with individuals identified by whatever bits of personal information deem them “human,” their images representative of the exploits of a privileged voyeur who simultaneously exotifies and moderates the population around him.
As Daniel D’Addario points out on Gawker, “It appears that Stanton sees people not as people but as vectors of how young, white New Yorkers see them.”
HONY aggressively promotes a wholly sentimentalized experience of New York City through a real-time disbursal of its faces, espousing an idea of inclusivity through a project of enforced uniformity. While the blog purposes to embrace diversity and celebrate each individual’s unique qualities, its effect is not to expand the rhetorical human category or challenge notions of conformity, but to accumulate and contain a more colorful array faces, neatly framed, within its restrictive scope. Beyond the exclusion inherent in a selective determination of what it takes to be counted among the “humans” of New York, the language of sameness it promotes carries a very alarming import.
A typical description of the blog sounds like Eliza Williams’ post in Creative Review: “His project is a truly ‘human’ one, revealing the vast commonalities in all our lives, and in our hopes and dreams, no matter how different our day-to-day circumstances may be.” Such a statement asserts not only that what the blog expresses accurately reflects the nature of a universal “humanity,” but also that such commonalities supersede the differences that characterize society. Further, understanding these differences as mere variation in “our day-to-day circumstances,” as happenstances in the expressions of culture, denies the very real structural impediments and barriers, based on race, class, gender, and other social markers, that separate people and their experiences. Such issues most require empathy—which is here precluded by prosaic sentiment.
In addition to overlooking the immediacy of social inequalities to any representation of “humanity,” HONY practices an explicit denial of racism. Instances of casual racism, from comparing a man to Mr. Miyagi based on his physical appearance to scoffing at the idea that a young woman’s sombrero and fake mustache could be racially inappropriate, pepper the blog. Yet while celebrating its inclusivity of all people and opinions, HONY has censored commenters who challenge the ideologies advocated in such offensive posts.
When Brianna Cox responded to a post featuring a white schoolteacher in Harlem who decries his students’ lack of “a culture of expectation at home” with the suggestion that the connection between a lack of success and “culture” points to a structural deficiency in the mainstream manner of treating its attendant connotations about race and class, her comments were summarily removed. This act of censorship reveals not only an aversion to intellectual engagement on the blog—anything that might push the content beyond mere sentimentality—but also a marked defense of the privilege of purported colorblindness. As Cox points out in her eloquent response to the incident, “coded language and implicit racism are real tools that perpetuate inequality.” To provide a platform for such tools while silencing the voices that challenge them is to assume complicity in this perpetuation.
In a reactionary note published on May 8, Stanton defends HONY’s censorship policy, addressing Cox with thinly veiled aggression: “If you’re attacking the subject with an erudite, graduate level vocabulary, you’re still attacking the subject.” In an astonishingly patronizing tone, Stanton both deflects responsibility for the bans onto his assistants while reassuring those banned that they may still view his blog—they simply may not express their opinions. He also alludes to an episode of the previous day regarding a post featuring a Sudanese woman and an Orthodox Jewish man, accompanied by the woman’s explanation that this man had just propositioned her multiple times. After congratulating himself for stepping between them and sharing her story, adding the extreme understatement that sexual harassment may inflict “emotional damage” on women, Stanton deletes the post in response to backlash from those concerned with the tarnished image of the man’s religious community. The post’s removal exposes the hollowness of his halfhearted attempt to align himself with a feminist cause, spoiled in the first place by his egregious objectification of the woman, who he says “was filled up” with “a very distinct beauty among people from the Sudan.” While claiming that his concern lies in respecting and protecting his subjects, his cowardice in these entanglements reveals a disregard for justice in favor of his own image and the continued success of his “human” endeavor.
In perhaps the most impertinent line of his response, Stanton assures his objectors, “I’m sure we actually have the same worldview. No doubt we are walking arm-in-arm toward the bright dawn of a new day.” Beyond the flagrant disregard for equity exhibited in these petty altercations, this statement, subsuming dissent in the sappy notion of shared worldviews and collective human progress, signals his participation in a vaster ideological project.
This particular rhetorical appeal to sentimentality accentuates humanistic photography’s role in mollifying social and political dissidence, most spectacularly manifested in Edward Steichen’s Family of Man exhibit of 1955, which he “conceived as a manifesto for peace and the fundamental equality of mankind.” Featuring the work of hundreds of photographers from dozens of countries, the exhibit organizes humanity into its alleged universalisms— showing that all men share the experience of birth and death, of work, knowledge, and play. French philosopher Roland Barthes’ critique applies just as aptly to HONY as it does to Family of Man:
“Everything here, the content and appeal of the pictures, the discourse which justifies them, aims to suppress the determining weight of History: we are held back at the surface of an identity, prevented precisely by sentimentality from penetrating into this ulterior zone of human behaviour where historical alienation introduces some 'differences' which we shall here quite simply call 'injustices'.”
Family of Man does more than pull the wool over the American public eye, however. Sponsored by the United States Information Agency, it functions as an apparatus of international “diplomacy,” promoting, in the words of Allan Sekula, “a benign view of an American world order stabilized by the rule of international law.”1 HONY has assumed a similar role in the form of a 50-day “world tour” of 11 countries last summer, sponsored by the United Nations to “raise awareness” of its Millennium Development Goals (MDG).
The world tour expands the scope of HONY’s collection of humans with the aim of stretching its trivializing project across international bounds. Stanton emphasizes the similarities among humans in other countries: “It seems that everywhere I go, people want the same things – security, education, family. It’s just that so many people have no avenues through which to obtain these things.” Unsurprisingly, these universal aspirations sound notably similar to the ideas sold by the MDG enterprise. By extension, they sound like that which could convince the viewing public that liberal interventionist policies provide the solutions to the gulfs of privilege that prevent these people from obtaining these things.
HONY’s promotion of the UN MDG, while serving interests much larger than its own, throws into sharper focus the nature of the humanizing project that it daily endorses. A commenter on a post from the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan writes, "It's been said many times before, but in just a few days these photographs have done more to humanize the Middle East than forty years of US media coverage. Thank you HONY."
Anything treading into the linguistic quagmire of “humanizing” is sure to raise red flags from many sectors. Yet before objecting that the Middle East doesn’t need a white man to humanize it, or pointing out the naiveté of expecting equitable treatment of Middle Eastern populations from mainstream US media at all, one should consider what a process of “humanizing” entails.
The idea that certain populations or individuals can be “humanized” carries, of course, the implication that they were previously less than or somehow other than human. Additionally, it maintains the godlike ability of those controlling discourse and representation to administer this transition from nonhuman to human. Whether the “humanizing” happens in New York City or in Vietnam, the activity of placing people in boxes to prove their humanity does more to reinforce their variance from the normative idea of humanity projected upon them. As dismissible as such dichotomies may be, they exist under the auspices of a hegemonic culture whose racist, heteronormative, patriarchic egocentrisms are directly serviceable to its global imperial schemes.
Like so many other cultural products of the day, HONY buttresses the status quo through a poisonous insistence upon its own apolitical nature. Stanton told the New York Times, “I purposely and pointedly try to avoid infusing any meaning in the work.” To claim that any creation, particularly composed of an array of human images, can exist without latent meaning is itself a highly political statement.
Relying on the deceptive nature of photography, which guises the creator’s hand in the illusion of a direct representation of reality, HONY manages to maintain its image as an unfiltered portrayal of “humanity.” Yet to censor critical commentary, in addition to posting the laments of a homeless man alongside a diatribe against another’s soliciting change, to visit Jerusalem without mentioning the occupation, to share an Iraqi child’s fear of bombs without considering their origin, or to perpetuate the stereotype of absent black fatherhood, while denying the dire importance of the political implications of each, is a great affront to both subject and viewer.
A healthy, if limited, conversation surrounding the problematic nature of many HONY posts exists online. Yet nearly every critique includes a concession to the blog—a confession that despite these contrarieties, the writer really does adore HONY, or (more bafflingly) that she or he cannot deny Stanton’s photographic talent. Such statements reflect the most deplorable side effect of the increasing democratization of the medium of photography: the shift in its definition from a medium of visual observation and artistic expression to the simple mastery of digital photographic technology.
Social media has contributed to this the compulsion of mimicry, which upholds that photographic talent equates to the ability to emulate a certain stylish aesthetic—in this case, crisp, saturated images made with a narrow range of focus.
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.
The lack of depth in each post for HONY, which thrives instead on volume, puts to question why this formula has garnered such acclaim. Its portraits are trite and uninspiring—showing little more than the fact of a person’s encounter on the street—yet it has millions of followers. There may be a particular reason why these plain portraits catch the eye: their straightforward style is attached to a photographic tradition with a compelling history. In the field of social documentary photography has developed a practice of simple, direct portrait style, often serving to inform the public about particular conditions or confront established norms.
From Lewis Hine’s early 20th century portraits of factory workers, which contributed to his efforts to amend US child labor laws, to Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let us now Praise Famous Men, a 1941 report on the living conditions of southern Dust Bowl sharecropper families, the medium has long been imbued with committed social purpose. It is perhaps due to Paul Stand’s 1916 portrait of a blind woman in New York that photographers today have an interest in photographing scenes of abjection on the New York City streets; however, they most often lack the innovation that Strand presented to the practice of seeing and the social commitment that Strand’s larger body of work and political expressions suggest.
One may also look to Diane Arbus’ portraits of “deviant and marginal people… whose normality seems ugly or surreal,” which, unlike projects like HONY, serve to critique the normative establishment by blatantly opposing it. Urban street portraiture also owes a particular debt to Jamel Shabazz, whose work exudes the intimacy of his relationships with the individuals comprising the neighborhoods in which he photographs.
These photographers, along with scores of others, have contributed to the development of new modes of seeing, and have, with careful aesthetic devotion, used the camera’s qualities to prompt a reconsideration of our visual interactions and confrontations with the world. Each may be subject to critique, but each is individually committed, thoughtful, and provoking. HONY’s abortion of these qualities, however, is not a necessary consequence of the state of contemporary photography and social media. Photographic portraiture as yet holds great potential in pushing at normative visual bounds. Zanele Muholi’s portraits of LGBTI individuals in South Africa challenge both the dominant modes of heteronormativity and the stereotypical narratives and images surrounding queer identity in South Africa. Zun Lee’s Father Figure project embodies the rich potential of visual storytelling; through long-term engagement with his subjects and deeply apparent empathy and respect, he transcends stereotypes rather than mutely affirming their existence.
HONY presents photographs derived from this tradition but divorced from its vast potential for social import. Its brand of “humanity” requires no scrutiny, for it is designed to do what photography’s critics have accused the medium of doing at its worst: to capture, to possess, and to provoke in the viewer unprocessable, useless emotion. Yet this is precisely why the blog has not only garnered such an audience, but has also engendered a mass of imitators. It is not the artistic quality of the photographs that entices, but their reproducibility. Today’s Family of Man needs no Steichen to curate it, for anyone with a camera now has the ability to produce his or her own vectors of humanity. And those with such discursive power are rarely compelled to consider the humans framed, manipulated, and extorted in their productions of sentimentality, the signals of their violent inhumanity.
James Baldwin’s words, ever salient, become particularly potent in times of practiced urgency, when the stakes for truth are most vulnerable to the cruel affronts of sentiment. Though the events of the past year have been unexceptional, the usual flagrancies of power have stung more acutely as of late, inciting a persistent rage against its abuses. When love for justice and loathing of imperium manifest in a committed resistance, sentimentality enters only as distraction. Where the two meet, they are invariably at odds.
1. Allan Sekula, “The Traffic in Photographs,” in Art Journal 41.1, Spring 1981, 19.
Melissa Smyth is an Associate Editor for Warscapes. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, with a concentration in visual culture and photographic representation. She holds degrees in Middle Eastern Studies and Visual Arts from Fordham University. Her photography work can be seen here: http://melissasmyth.4ormat.com/