It started as a simple idea: take pictures of New Yorkers, add a few sentences about the person and post on the internet. Now, nearly 4 years later, this simple project has taken off. Why? Because everyone has a story to tell — and with nearly 10 million Facebook likes, Brandon Stanton is a master at telling them.
Brandon, the photojournalist behind Humans of New York, typically takes photos of New Yorkers, capturing their stories. One early story Brandon captured on the streets of New York was of a Holocaust survivor.
“We fled Germany on November 9th, 1938. It was called the Crystal Night, because there were demonstrations against Jews all over Germany, and many windows were being broken. We were living on the outskirts of Hanover. When my father came home from work that night, he told us that the synagogue was on fire, and that firemen were standing in a ring around it to prevent the flames from spreading to other buildings. He said: ‘We’re getting out of here.’”
Now Brandon is taking his work across the globe. Working with the UN Brandon is currently on a 50-day trip across 10 different countries, including South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq — places where the threat of genocide looms.
The words and the pictures that Brandon captures are powerful they show in the conditions for those living in countries where mass atrocities and genocide is real. But the strength of the project goes beyond the photo — the stories these people share create an intimate connection, showing that these people are every day human beings and demand protection from the horrors being inflicted upon them
In Iraq Christians, Yazidis and other minorities are being targeted by the Islamic State, the militant group better known as ISIS. ISIS has been fueling sectarian violence in the region for nearly a decade, with attacks escalating in 2012 to today. The United Nations estimates that militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have forced nearly 180,000 families — or more than a million people — from their homes in Iraq.
A picture was taken of four Iraqi women describing the atmosphere in Iraq. “We told her to sit with us so we could share her sadness.”
— Dohuk, Iraq
In South Sudan, fighting that began nine months ago has ripped the world’s youngest country apart. The conflict has already killed 10,000 and displaced over a million men, women and children. Nearly 4 million people face alarming levels of food instability and 50,000 children are at risk of starving to death.
“When the fighting started, we ran and hid in a school. But soon, they pulled up a car with a large machine gun mounted on the back. They began to fire through the walls. My children and I ran in different directions. I ran into the bush and cried for four days because I was sure they were dead. But when I finally made it here, I found them here too.”
— Tongping Internally Displaced Persons Site, Juba, South Sudan
The Democratic Republic of Congo is another site of conflict. Despite various peace agreements, violence in DRC is ongoing and civilians continue to be targeted. Both government and rebel forces have been implicated in attacks on civilians. The violence takes many forms including mass killings, rape and torture.
“We don’t like pictures like this. It is not good to deduce an entire country to the image of a person reaching out for food. It is not good for people to see us like this, and it is not good for us to see ourselves like this. This gives us no dignity.”
— Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo
These photos are already making a difference, reaching out to over millions of people. Brandon’s photos aren’t just spreading awareness, they are giving people from other countries a chance to be heard.
By showing the thoughts and hopes of people from The Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Iraq and other countries, Brandon’s work creates a unique connection between those under attack in far away places and us here at home. These connections that remind us that we are all humans will help inspire us to care, help and act to stop these mass atrocities and genocides.
Raquel Lesser is a student of Manhattanville College and a member of STAND, the U.S. student-led movement to end mass atrocities. Erik Leaver, Director of Digital Strategy at United to End Genocide, contributed to this article.