There’s a lot to be gleaned from conversations with more than 1,200 strangers in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. Take the man and daughter practicing fencing against a tree, or Spider-Man literally leaping onto the side of a cab as it rushes through traffic.
Gathered over a span of four years, collected over 400 days of filming, the conversations and stories that are part of the new documentary series Humans of New York are as wide-ranging and eclectic as the series’ title would suggest.
Four years ago, photographer Brandon Stanton (@humansofny) started a blog, Humans of New York (www.humansofnewyork.com), with the simple goal of elucidating what it’s like to be a human being in an often confusing, frustrating and beautiful world. Sometime during the course of the nearly 10,000 initial interviews he conducted, Stanton began to film.
Many of those conversations are now being pulled into a 12-episode series that debuted on Facebook’s new video platform—called Watch—on Aug. 28. The half-hour series is executive produced by Julie Goldman, the documentary producer behind such films as Weiner and Life, Animated.
The results are candid and surprising, as you might imagine of an impromptu conversation with a stranger on the streets of New York. And video brings these intimate, simple and sometimes shocking revelations to life.
“Early on I realized that video would add a deeper layer to Humans of New York,” Stanton says. “I have always done my best to re-create the experience through photos and words, but I knew that video would provide the closest thing to actually being there.”
With the help of cinematographer Michael Crommett, Stanton reviewed the video segments that he’d recorded, and instead of posting them one day at a time, he considered how to combine them into something special. “My goal was not to make a television show based on [the] Humans of New York [blog],” he says. “I wanted the television show to be Humans of New York.”
In a city of 8.5 million people, it’s easy to make a split-second judgement about someone, from the white-bearded man in a yoga pose on a wet sidewalk to the woman in a fur coat executing a precise karate kick in the middle of a crowded square. But your assumption about who these people are is shattered as soon as they begin to talk. One well dressed young man reveals he’s struggling to deal with the loss of his mother, even though she brought trauma and instability to his childhood. Same with the guitar-playing child, who declares, with sincerity beyond her years, we need to remember we’re just here to learn and evolve. “Even when we’re old, we’ll still be changing.”
In some cases, the blog that kicked off the Humans of New York video platform has had enormous impact on those interviewed.
An interview with a young Venezuelan woman named Rose revealed that, despite graduating at the top of her class in college and owning three businesses, she struggled to find work in Venezuela and left a screaming, terrified daughter behind to seek employment in the United States. “I’m trying to keep a good spirit. But I grew up very poor. I came from nothing. So I’ve been here before,” she says, revealing that selling keychains on the street in New York allows her to send food to her daughter in Venezuela. Her story hit home. More than $136,000 has been raised by strangers for Rose in the seven months since her story was published on the blog.
“One thing I’ve learned is that helping others is the most important thing in life,” says one interviewee in a clip advertising the Humans of New York series. He stands in a crowd of rushing commuters, none of whom slow down to glance at him or the camera. “Look at this,” he says, gesturing to those around him. “Stop, look at the people around you and say, ‘Can I help that person?’ It’s so important.”
Facebook created the Watch platform to help creators and publishers build tailored audiences for their programming. Along with Humans of New York, the platform will air niche programming like Tiny Houses, which explores interest in teeny-tiny living arrangements, and We’re Wired That Way, a short-form video/graphics/narration program from National Geographic that explains why our brains do the things they do. After its debut on Aug. 28, a new episode of Humans of New York will be released each week.
Despite the sometimes dramatic admissions, most of the conversations in Humans of New York end with no resolution. What happens to the man with the short-fuse temper toward his young sons? The one whose only fear is that he won’t be able to make his rent payment in a week? It’s part of the human condition to wonder and worry and hope for the best.