A camera with many different light bulbs of different colors coming out of it
Illustration by Doug Chayka

Snapshots for social change

How Humans of New York created an activist community through participatory storytelling.

Street photographer Brandon Stanton started Humans of New York (HONY) in 2009 with the aim of gathering 10,000 photographs of New Yorkers framed against an interactive map of the city. To put his subjects at ease, Stanton frequently made conversation with them and turned these snippets of conversation into captions for his photographs.

The microstorytelling format and the lack of closure were an invitation to Stanton’s Facebook fan community to fill the gaps in the narratives and bring the stories to a satisfying conclusion. 

Between 2012 and 2017, HONY gradually transformed from a photography project to a pathway for civic intervention, taking its cue from the affective parasocial relationships cultivated by the fan community. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, HONY and Tumblr teamed up to raise $100,000 in donations from the HONY fan community. The community has also come together to help subjects of Stanton’s photographs locate missing pets, find employment, prevent a local bakery from going bankrupt, and get pro bono legal counsel for immigration. These calls to action are spontaneously driven by an impulse to improve the conclusions of those stories through participatory efforts.

HONY uses communal storytelling and fan advocacy to create an alternate template of political activism that moves away from organized groups and political mobilization and instead advances a form of social reform based on collaborative problem-solving and networks of affect. 

Stanton is part of a growing network of celebrities who encourage their fan communities to use affective labor practices to enact social change. However, HONY is an interesting case study of a civic fan community that has gone beyond its founder’s original political vision and created a version of the civic imagination that challenges, and even subverts, some of Stanton’s own assumptions. 

In 2016, USC Provost Professor Henry Jenkins defined the civic imagination as the belief that one cannot change the world unless one can imagine what a better world might look like. Put into action, the civic imagination encompasses a set of collaborative practices that encourage problem-solving and building social consciousness through the simple act of imagining better alternatives to the world’s contemporary social and political problems. 

Stanton’s original conception of Humans of New York was the impetus behind the creation of a novel form of the civic imagination centered on the practice of participatory storytelling and affective connections to imagine better conclusions to deliberately truncated narratives. While the community originally came together through their shared appreciation of Stanton’s photography, it gradually morphed into a space for critical discussion and collaborative action to imagine better alternatives for the subjects of stories that aroused feelings of sympathy and kinship.

His fundraiser for the Mott Hall Bridges Academy raised $1.4 million to send three successive cohorts of sixth graders from local low-income families to a summer school program at Harvard University and even garnered a public platform from celebrity philanthropists like Ellen DeGeneres. 

These examples shed some light on the way Stanton imagines civic action through HONY. Although he clearly understands the potential of participatory action and storytelling in enacting social change, the actual participation of the HONY community is limited to raising money, creating awareness, and above all, generating a spirit of goodwill and kinship in the community. 

By reimagining the very nature of the civic imagination, these groups collaboratively develop new ways of thinking about the infrastructures of collective action by remixing resources and practices and developing social links with a larger collective.  

This article is adapted from one of the essays in Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies in Creative Social Change (NYU Press), co-edited by Henry Jenkins, USC Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education. Paromita Sengupta earned her PhD in communication in May 2020.