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Humans of New York Series Inspires Intimate Portraits of Life in Iraq and Around the World

Humans of Lebanon

An umbrella makes all the difference. Hamra Street, Beirut. Photo by Fadi BouKaram, from the Humans of Lebanon Facebook page.

I look at Humans of Lebanon and am immediately reminded of how much I love it there. A picture of a young man fleeing the rain while a young couple chats cozily underneath a bubble umbrella reminds me of a similar rainy night on Hamra Street, when the gutters threatened to flood the sidewalks, rainwater gushing toward us at full tilt. We moved into the street, dancing in the downpour.

Our tiny moment wasn’t captured on film (as far as I know), but Humans of Lebanon, like its inspiration, Humans of New York, is full of such tableaux. Coupled with sometimes-wry, sometimes-heartbreaking commentary from the photograph’s subjects, these pages are a window into different worlds, a visual take on travel writing.

Humans of New York (HONY)—where it all started—has become a phenomenon. After its creator, Brandon Stanton, took a trip to Iran last year (photographing its people in the same way he had been humanizing New Yorkers for well over a year), Stanton’s web site blew up, scoring its founder a book deal and widespread coverage in the mainstream press.  Most recently, Stanton was invited on a global tour by the United Nations; thus far, his travel photos from Iraq and Jordan have gone viral, with many commentators focusing on the “humanizing” effect of his images.

“I’m living a good life. I’m a business owner. A lot of hotels say, ‘Come shine shoes for us. We will pay you better.’ I tell them: ‘Why would I do that? I am free.’” (Shaqlawa, Iraq). From the Humans of New York Facebook page, uploaded on August 1, 2014.

“I’m living a good life. I’m a business owner. A lot of hotels say, ‘Come shine shoes for us. We will pay you better.’ I tell them: ‘Why would I do that? I am free.’” (Shaqlawa, Iraq). From the Humans of New York Facebook page, uploaded on August 11, 2014.

“…I try not to form these overarching philosophies about what HONY’s about, what is it contributing to the world, what’s the meaning behind the work, you know, why am I doing it? I’m doing it because I love it, other people seem to enjoy it and I want to get better at it. If there’s meaning behind the work, let that come out organically,” Stanton said in a 2013 interview.

And yet it’s obvious that HONY and its copycats have created a new lens into other worlds. A quick Facebook search brings up dozens upon dozens of pages, from Humans of India to Humans of Stony Brook. The pages are a photographic census of cities both large and small. They offer us a glimpse, without ever setting foot on a plane, into the cafés and the slums of distant destinations. But more than that, they offer us a glimpse into the minds of their inhabitants.

"I started feeding him, he started protecting me from the bullies. Now we're brothers." From the Humans of India Facebook page.

“I started feeding him, he started protecting me from the bullies. Now we're brothers.” From the Humans of India Facebook page. Uploaded on June 26, 2014.

"In Syria, I used to have a small library and a club for young people who love to read, and would sell books for cheap prices so as many people as possible could benefit. I'm the one in charge of the publishing house you can see inside, which is where I sell books as well." "How did reading change your life?" "Human! Reading made me human." "When did you start reading?" "I started at the age of 15, I used to spend my pocket money on books to read without my parents knowing. They would always ask me where I spent all the money, until they saw all the books I was hiding under my bed."

“In Syria, I used to have a small library and a club for young people who love to read, and would sell books for cheap prices so as many people as possible could benefit. I'm the one in charge of the publishing house you can see inside, which is where I sell books as well.”How did reading change your life? “Human! Reading made me human. When did you start reading? “I started at the age of 15, I used to spend my pocket money on books to read without my parents knowing. They would always ask me where I spent all the money, until they saw all the books I was hiding under my bed.” From the Humans of Amman Facebook page. Uploaded on August 15, 2014.

Two years ago, the Swedish government found a use for @sweden, a Twitter account they had undoubtedly registered years prior. Each week, they would hand off control of the account to a different Swedish citizen, offering the Twittersphere a diverse picture of what it means to be Swedish. Though not without controversy, the project has been an utter success, with copycats from @twkUSA (where Americans show off their lives) to @WeAreNaija (where Nigerians give us a taste of their country). It’s fascinating each week to see a new individual depict their country differently from the last.

In the worlds of both Humans of… and Twitter, accounts often interact with one another. @Sweden and @twkUSA debate about who’s the bigger coffee drinker. Humans of China leaves a comment on HONY. Tiny moments, shared across cultures. Tiny moments, savored amongst distant friends.

Frequently, on a Humans of… page, a photograph is posted and shortly after, someone identifies the subject in the comments. “Hey, that’s my friend!”, one might say, tagging the person in the photo (or not—lest we forget the entire world isn’t on the popular social networking site). In the same way that I used to frantically search for some personal artifact of a distant celebrity online, an individual who—for just a moment—I have begun to admire turns out to be just a click away. I can visit her virtual home, peek into her life the way one might a window on a busy residential street.

Humans of Tehran, which notes on its page that “Tehran is not as faraway [sic] as you think it is,” has nearly 160,000 fans, many of them Americans. While US citizens can technically travel to Iran, most don’t: the standoff between their government and the government of Iran has given many the impression that it’s a dangerous place, while the restrictions placed by Iran on US travelers are off-putting to those who might try. Yet, the comments on Humans of Tehran show us that the interest is there. Grateful comments like this are the norm, not the exception: “Finally it is possible to see and hear other stories from Tehran than what the media is telling us.”

Pakistan is similarly avoided by most Americans, a fact of which the creator of Humans of Lahore is clearly aware, stating the purpose of the page as “Trying to chip in from this part of the world which is oft misunderstood and gravely misrepresented.” And represent they do, showing photographs of artisans, poor children, Hindu celebrations, spice sellers, and women on motorbikes, a veritable mosaic of a diverse and fascinating country.

Many of us have come to believe that our online interactions exist solely in a bubble, that our conversations occur only with those whose views are similar to ours, leaving any real possibility for political and social change out of reach. And yet, projects like Global Voices, Humans of…, and the country-focused Twitter accounts demonstrate that people are in fact reaching across geographical lines, if not political ones.

This, to me, rings true. The past eight years of my life have been dedicated to reaching across those lines, and while it’s true that many of those hands reaching back out to mine belong to people with similar ideologies, our upbringings, our families, our education often couldn’t be more different. There is value in crossing political lines, yes, but we must also not forget the value in crossing geographical ones. In traveling—both “real” and virtual—I have found some of my closest friends, partners in crime, matches of the mind. And through these portals, perhaps you will too.

A few of my favorites:

Humans of Syracuse (New York)
Humans of Zagreb
Humans of Paris
Humans of Buenos Aires
Humans of Singapore
Humans of India
Humans of Amman
Humans of Toronto
Humans of Detroit
Humans of Durban
Humans of Lublin (Poland)
Humans of Rome

Jillian C York is a writer and free speech activist, currently serving as the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. Her work is centered on the intersection of technology and policy.

  • Yana

    HONY readers are trying to help – there’s a fundraising effort going on to reunite a recently-featured father with his two small boys: http://www.gofundme.com/cuflfc

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