Is there an ethics code for storytelling?: the phenomenon of Humans of New York

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By: Emily Jenab

Humans of New York has become inescapable. Photographer Brandon Stanton is singlehandedly telling multiple stories: effectively creating empathy in the cold, often isolating experience of New York; unearthing the humanity in the overlooked. It is noble work that has reached millions.

I have often found myself consumed by the stories and photographs of the ignored, not to mention pleased with his work in Iran and Pakistan, defying stereotypes with each humanizing tale posted. His work seems to be the modern-day activism that we have come to love: a way of creating connections to faces on our screens in a globalized world.

We see the stories he presents – a fashion designer from Ghana, a single mother, a tired student – and feel as though we know the faces looking back at us. We can feel the personal permeating through social media. Our globalized world is reflected for our ready, instant consumption. His page immerses us in the most intimate thoughts of passersby, allowing for a brief emotional connection with an image or a caption.

Yet, what are the ethical implications of this kind of production? I now find myself becoming uneasy with this Facebook page, which is legitimately a social phenomenon. This raises the question: is it exploitative for someone to become popular at the hands of sometimes-marginalized groups? I will touch upon Stanton’s systems of compensation and charity, but that does not take away from the general unsettling nature of sharing one’s stories, particularly for marginalized individuals, and not having a direct, uniform source of tangible compensation for every person.

Perhaps my discomfort lies in the mass production of certain stories: in the creation of pain for consumption, in the capitalization of the intricate details of a marginalized person’s life. For example, Stanton’s photographic series devoted to the exploration of stories of prisoners in New York seemed like an exposition on human suffering created solely for publicity, rather than empathy. With no regard for traditional journalistic ethics, Stanton provides a voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of byproducts of an inherently unjust prison system – a way to evoke empathy and ethical questions without responsibility.

Stanton never claims to be an informed, unbiased news source. However, his storytelling has legitimate, tangible effects. He is shaping opinions; creating a space for public dialogue. He is prompting Americans to think, moreover, about the implications of the prison system; but he is doing this without much regard for policy change or reified effects. This is important work. But is it Stanton’s to do? Is his page now speaking for others? And is he ready, moreover, to assume the responsibility of the weight of these stories?

More than anything, I would appreciate a checking of his privilege: an acknowledgment of his status as a white man in the face of the disillusioned. This is not meant to be an exposition on Stanton’s own character or an introspective look at his moral failings or successes, primarily because he does not post about his own views extensively, and generally refrains from providing personal input.

However, it still makes me question whether there is an exploitative tone to his work. His work raises questions about how we can check our privilege while still respectfully exploring the stories of others. Would a thorough, structured, formal compensation system help make his method of storytelling more ethical?

As Stanton sells books, and gains Facebook popularity and page views, what do the humans with stories – for example, the prisoners – gain? Does his success come at their hands?

It can be noted that Stanton has contributedsometimes significantly – to various causes. He has created fundraisers for Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a school in Brooklyn.

Stanton has been praised for a transparency in his work and gains from his published books. He has stated that most of the proceeds go to funding trips to tell more global stories. This may be true, but, again, is there an ethical standard that should be applied here? Stanton’s goals of fundraising and activist efforts have been staggering in their success. He is, by all means, a powerful figure in the photography world.

In regards to his prisoner photographs: the people who have told Stanton their stories have told them repeatedly: to courtrooms, and public defenders, and juries. And if we can assume, then, that they have been failed by their surroundings, by us, by our institutions, what are they gaining from the publicity and from this outlet? What is the ethical value of this work? Does it highlight a lack of something within us?

He presents raw emotions, and unsettling images, but is this enough? Which, of course, brings us to a greater question: what can we make of awareness and the value of spreading stories? Stanton is one man. He cannot be held to the standards of giant media corporations. But what standards should we hold him to? Should we consider the reasons behind why suffering makes a compelling blog post? Is the creation of humanity through photographs and interviews enough to justify the intrusions or consequences of exposure?

My main concern extends beyond Stanton; I am worried that we will never have an allotted space within society for people of color and other vulnerable groups to have a voice without needing that voice reinforced by a privileged member of society. I am worried that we have been ignoring these stories too long, and denying certain voices narratives within our culture.

Is there ever truly an ethical way of presenting someone’s suffering? The ethics of speaking for others, of sharing and benefitting from someone’s own words, is not a definitive set of rules. There needs to be more work on the impact of social media exposure, and the use of one’s words, of one’s life, without direct compensation.

Stanton represents, for all purposes, a benign hijacking of someone else’s story, and he must be more involved in critically shaping the narrative of his photographs. It is not enough to provide, without education or analysis, a heart-wrenching story of a woman struggling with domestic abuse, or a man facing life for crack possession.

It is not enough, anymore, for someone to gain exposure from the suffering of others, without compensating the individuals who are providing their innermost thoughts and dreams. Eventually, there must be a critical conversation surrounding the work of Stanton, and, moreover, the ethics of his brand of storytelling.

There must be a conscious, public forum addressing the histories behind widespread suffering. Whether that comes from Stanton or outside sources, his photographs should no longer stand alone.

Emily Jenab is currently completing her M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


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