When the Humans of New York project started, Brandon Stanton was a chronicler of the amazing life stories of people he met on the streets of New York City. The subsequent fame that his project has amassed has converted the photographer himself into a celebrity today so much so that it seems that in South Asia, it is considered an achievement on your part if Brandon considers you worthy enough to be photographed.
Brandon Stanton from the Humans of New York fame is on a world tour supported by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals group from August to September, 2014. We know Brandon from his portraits (and stories) of people on the New York City. Perhaps Brandon a very good photographer. Or at least many people in world seems to really like his pictures based on the kind of response his Facebook page has got so far. Perhaps his photographs are not that great but the stories/quotes that accompany the pictures make them look extraordinary. Whatever may be the case, Brandon seems to have become a celebrity himself probably contrary to what he set out to become i.e. a chronicler or some kind of an archivist of the people of New York City.
Brandon’s celebrity/star status was discovered by me recently when I stumbled across various tweets congratulating Aditya Raj Kaul for being featured on the Humans of New York website. As part of his World Tour, Brandon must have crossed New Delhi, India when he met Aditya and took a picture of Aditya with his father by the side. Ever since the site launched publicly, clicking through HONY has become a daily activity for most of us so when Brandon covered Aditya Raj Kaul’s story, it didn’t take a long time for his followers to notice his picture on HONY’s website/Facebook page. On discovering Aditya’s story they quickly started congratulating him for being featured on HONY via tweets.
HONY or no HONY, Aditya is a respected and established senior journalist from India. He has worked in conflict torn places like Baghdad in Iraq and Bastar in India. He exclusively interviewed the inaccessible Mr Narendra Modi(now India’s Prime Minister) and Chief Commander of terror group Hizbul Mujahideen in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) Syed Salauddin. Besides Times Now he has worked for a number of renowned Indians newspapers, weeklies and channels. He is the person who launched an internet petition to bring Justice for Priyadarshini Mattoo in 2006 at the age of 16 and got the Supreme Court of India to get the rape case reopened and punish the rapist. India Today Magazine and NDTV, The Times of India among others have recognized his work as a youth icon, young achiever among other recognitions. 
So, when several people on twitter expressed happiness, pride, surprise, wonder and myriad of other positive emotions on seeing Aditya on HONY, I was surprised. I do not want to point out that these people were ignorant that they did not know Aditya’s back story until HONY covered it especially since many of the people did know the story, they are Aditya’s acquaintances. They know him personally and his background. But what struck me as interesting in this phenomenon of congratulating Aditya is the celebrity status of Brandon Stanton. 
It appears to me that people took Aditya’s HONY feature as an important recognition of his achievements. If you think of it and consider the body of work that Aditya has developed over the years, does Aditya really need any recognition let alone coverage on HONY. It is great that he was featured on HONY. Given the 4,13,451 likes on HONY’s Facebook page one can assume that a very large number of people now know Aditya and his admirable journalistic work not just in India but internationally. The fact that we congratulated Aditya for being featured on HONY leads me to think the nature of Brandon and HONY’s celebrity status.
Why does one need Brandon to feature oneself in his project? So much so that there is a Bring HONY to pakistan page on Facebook which wanted Brandon to visit Pakistan. Given the nice person that Brandon is he promised the Pakistanis that he will try to visit them next time. But for a moment, just think of the irony of the statement itself. Why would you want to bring the Humans of New York to Pakistan?
Hey guys, Pakistan was near the top of my list of places I wanted to go– but the visa didn’t come through in time. The trip was approved by the UN just two weeks before I left, so it was a mad scramble to get what visas I could. I inquired at the Pakistani consulate if there was ANYTHING I could do to rush, but they said it would be 7 full business days. Since I only had one passport, and needed several more visas, I just couldn’t do it. But I know how many HONY fans are in Pakistan, and I do see all your messages, and it does break my heart a bit, because I really wanted to show my appreciation to all of you by visiting you and gathering stories. Just know that I have my heart set on a future visit.
Another thing that startled me about the entire HONY on world tour phenomenon is this one particular comment by a northeast Indian on HONY’s photo of Aditya. The person is asking Brandon to visit north-east India so that he can take pictures of north-east Indians and show it to the world and especially mainland Indians who make fun of the north east people’s mongoloid features.
The congratulatory tweets, the Facebook page by a group of Pakistanis and this particular comment that I pointed out in the previous paragraph point to a certain tendency displayed by south asians that we have previously seen in case of the numerous debates about Indian films and their Oscar ambitions epitomized by the national support for slumdog millionaire to win big or the recent raucous over Maria Sharapova, a US tennis player not recognizing Indian cricket player Sachin Tendulkar. Social media was extremely angry at Maria for not recognizing Sachin and the news took over electronic and print media as the main topic. Why do we long for this approval which seems to be expected from the west, the white part of that west?
One also wonders whether the celebrity status of HONY has anything to do with social media in particular? The public response, I think, was not just about western recognition but western recognition on Facebook! A social media researcher friend of mine said to me that the public response to HONY’s post was not just a digital reproduction of old anxieties with respect to the west but that Facebook’s participatory and networked culture is adding new facets to our fascination of the west. Perhaps he’s right. One can not imagine such a response if HONY was a popular newspaper or TV channel.
Lastly, I want to point out the difference in taking candids on the streets of New York as a relatively unknown photographer compared to someone walking on the streets of New Delhi who is himself a celebrity. When the project began no one knew Brandon. Now he is a celebrity. Social Media have made sure his subjects themselves know him well. From a street photographer’s point of view, both these acts of clicking are fundamentally different. It will be interesting to see how does Humans of New York go from here. All the luck to Brandon Stanton!
References and Notes:
. In order to safeguard the privacy of the people whose tweets I am talking about(especially since I haven’t sought permission from them about quoting although public tweets are public and I am not doing anything unethical as far as internet research ethics are concerned ), I have refrained from citing the specific ones that I talk about.