Wellness Reads: Humans of NY, a catalogue of human stories

I just picked up this brand new coffee table portrait collection at the library.


Humans of New York is a 6 year old project of New York photographer Brandon Stanton. He takes people’s pictures. The ordinary folk of New York City, where he lives. It began as a kind of census-taking. In images. He’d just moved to the city, so I can see it as a way to make the people-watching more meaningful, a kind of practice.

But the just-fired bond trader, who had only picked up a camera 6 months before, had a bigger goal. He wanted to “create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants and lot their photos on a map.” He spent a few months trying to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers.


He photographed every single day.

Somewhere along the way, the photo inventory took on an extra layer. He started collecting quotes and short stories from the photo subjects and including them alongside the photographs.

He posted them on a tumblr that soon had millions of followers. His first book was published in 2013.

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“My wife and I were eating at a rib joint in Key Largo, and we actually took out a piece of paper and made a pros and cons list. The ‘con’ list was pretty normal: time, money, things like that. I remember at the top of the ‘pro’ list was: ‘Full Human Experience.’ After our daughter was born, that became an inside joke with us. Every time she was screaming at bath time, my wife and I would look at each other and say: ‘Full Human Experience.’ The first three months were the hardest. Honestly, we wondered if we’d made a mistake. It was like a bomb dropped and eviscerated everything in our lives. But then our daughter started growing up, and learning to do things on her own, and we kept taking small steps back and getting more of our own time back. There’s an unexpected sadness to getting your life back. It’s like your getting laid off slowly from an equally grueling but joyful job. She’s ten now. And I’ll notice that she’ll be reading alone for an hour without getting bored and jumping on me. We used to make tents on the bed, now it’s more homework and YouTube. Sometimes she’ll go in her room for a long time and close the door. Her life is becoming hers and I’m fascinated by where it’s going to go. But it’s bittersweet that she needs me less and less.”

A catalogue of the human zoo, of that teeming city where people go with such big dreams, Humans of New York: Stories is a chest-opening heartbreaking collection. There are so few love stories! So many people are struggling. So many are lonely. So many have the same dreams and desires. The quest to feel worthy of love and belonging, as the great Brene Brown says, goes on. And on. And on.

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Reading through helps cast your own life into perspective – the fortunes and misfortunes, the joy of living in a small community. Stanton talks to anyone and everyone, so you also get to confront your prejudices about people’s appearances. And the range of subjects means any reader will find something that resonates for them, some person who really speaks right to their heart, someone whose picture they just want to rip out of the book. It’s fascinating for that.

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I loved having it on my coffee table for a week, just flicking through it in front of the fire, as the day was winding down.

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I follow the intagram feed. (Me and 4.8 million other people.) (It’s on Facebook, too.) Because, for all the heartbreak, it’s so good to keep on listening to each other. Because I love seeing the outcome of an artist’s daily practice. I love getting a hint of the questions he asks, to solicit these amazing and intimate stories from people. And because Compassion Practice is something we can all devote 5 minutes a day to.


Hey stranger, what’s your story?




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