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'Humans of New York' Creator Is Turning His Lens on the People of Johannesburg

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Caring for one another should be something we strive for and UN’s Global Goals can’t be achieved without taking into account everyone's human rights and united humanity. The work of people like Brandon Stanton is important because, by documenting people's individual stories, they make it so much harder for world leaders to turn their backs on issues affecting people. You can join us in taking action to support the Global Goals here

Humans of New York is a blog that captures unique and emotional stories from all over the world — and for the past few weeks, it’s been focused on the people of Johannesburg. 

Humans of New York (HONY) founder blogger and photographer Brandon Stanton has been touring parts of Africa in search of unique stories that have an impact on humanity. Since October, he's been to Rwanda, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa.

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HONY began as a photography project in 2010, according to Stanton. Of why he started the blog, Stanton wrote on his website that he wanted to create “an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s (New York) inhabitants.” 

“The initial goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street, and create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants," he said.

Stanton said somewhere along the way, he began to get personal with the people he took photos of and wanted to hear their stories. He now interviews his subjects in addition to photographing them. 

“(In the blog) alongside their portraits, I'd include quotes and short stories from their lives," he said.

“My first job in film was as a trainee on a feature. I think it was called ‘Gums and Noses.’ I cleaned the toilet, swept, made tea— things like that. All I ever got was money for transportation, which was fine for me. I just wanted to be on a film set. But with two weeks left of filming, there was a bit of a disaster in the camera department. A trainee blew up an HD monitor by plugging it into the wrong hole. Which was a shame, but it was great for me because I always wanted to be a cinematographer. When I heard them say they needed a replacement, I raised my hand and said: ‘Me, me, me!’ So that’s how it started. And it never stopped. The camera department can be a weird place. It’s all white and male. And it’s a bit like boot camp. A lot of the guys are mean. They don’t like being approached by subordinates. And if you make a mistake, they’ll scream at you. A lot of the guys act like they’re curing cancer instead of making beautiful pictures. But I had thick skin. So I moved up quickly. Recently I DP’ed one of the most popular shows in South Africa. And I run my department a little differently. It’s much more chill. I think we should all share our knowledge. Nobody should be afraid to make mistakes or feel embarrassed to ask questions. And one trainee should always be a girl. It doesn’t matter if she’s studied or not, as long as she’s keen.” (Johannesburg, South Africa)

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(2/2) “Mom tried her best to pay for flight school, but we kept running out of money. I’d have to drop out for a few weeks, and since flying involves so much muscle memory, it would take me a while to get back on track. So one day I bought a stack of magazines and newspapers. I went through every page and cut out the advertisements. Then I opened my pantry and wrote down every brand I could find. I sent all of them letters, asking for help. Almost everyone said ‘no.’ But I did receive an amount from a grocery store called Pick-n-Pay. And Breitling sent me a brand new watch to raffle. That was a huge break. I sold six hundred raffle tickets. Things were going so well. African Pilot Magazine promoted the raffle for free. A man from Australia bought 100 tickets. But then I got a letter from the Lottery Board ordering me to end my raffle. They said it was illegal. I tried to explain that I was raising money for my education, but they didn’t care. I was so disappointed. I’d have to sit out another year of flight school. But when I called everyone to explain the situation, nobody would accept their money back. They told me to keep it! It was enough to keep me in the air for months. Then around Christmas that year, one of my mentors invited me to eat lunch at the airport. When I stepped out of the car, everyone who had ever helped me was there. They all started clapping. And somebody handed me the phone. A person on the other end said: ‘You’re live on 94.7, and we’re going to pay for your entire education!’ That was nearly four years ago. I just got my license last week. My plan is to fly for South African Airlines, but first I want to do some teaching. I want to visit schools in black neighborhoods. I want all the kids to see what an African female pilot looks like.” (Johannesburg, South Africa)

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The blog, which has over 18 million Facebook followers, connects people from other parts of the world with strangers whose lives we wouldn’t know about if it wasn’t for Stanton and his team.

“HONY now has over 20 million followers on social media, and provides a worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers on the streets of New York City," according to Stanton.

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According to Pulse Nigerian, a news and entertainment website, Stanton was also recently in Lagos as part of his African trip.

“My younger sister passed away last year from an unexpected stroke. So I’m raising both my daughter and my niece. In our culture, it’s an automatic. It just kicks in. She belongs to me now. I’m a single mother so it’s not easy. There are definitely months when I add up income and expenses and the numbers don’t work. And both of them are thirteen so their moods are all over the place. Today is like this, and tomorrow is like that. But God has given us favor as well. We can afford to share an ice cream. We have shelter. We have food. And after four months of no work, I just found a new management position. So we’ve come a long way. My niece is beginning to heal. Her grades are improving at school. She still speaks of her mother in the present tense, but there’s no more crying at night. And I’ve grown a lot as well. Because more than I want to acknowledge --the struggle has given me meaning. This is my purpose. I have a little family. And we share what little we have.” (Johannesburg, South Africa)

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“I hung out in the streets a lot as a child. But when I was seventeen, my parents died in a minibus crash. It forced me to wake up and work for myself. I got my first job as a cleaner. The boss ordered me around for months. But when it was time to pay me, he refused. It left me in a desperate situation. I was hungry. I needed shelter. So I got frustrated. Some of my friends were stealing cars at the time. They had a special key that could open doors. At first I didn’t want to get involved, but they were living the life I wanted. They had nice cars. They could afford to buy drinks. So when they asked me to come along one night, I agreed. I told myself: ‘If I just go along once, I’ll be alright.’ We stole three cars that night. Everyone got away but me. When I saw the police lights in my rearview mirror, I started crying immediately. I knew my life was over. I spent a few years in prison. That’s where I met a social worker named Ms. Palesa. She was near retirement. And when she heard my story, she invited me to come work at her house when I got released. I painted for her. I cleaned. I worked in the garden. Not only did she pay me, but she treated me like her child. She bought me clothes. She encouraged me to learn a trade. Ms. Palesa only lived for a few more years, but she set me on the right path. Every friend that I stole cars with that night is either dead or in jail. But I work every day, and I never committed another crime.” (Johannesburg, South Africa)

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“My dad moved us from Congo when I was a teenager. I wasn’t given a choice in the matter. I didn’t know anyone. I couldn’t speak English. And for a while I had an identity crisis. I felt like my skin was too dark and my build was too muscular. Other kids were telling me that I looked like a boy. I got bullied a lot. I didn’t have any friends. I began to feel depressed. Then one weekend I got invited to a party at a boy’s house. I was excited to go. But when I got there, it was nothing but drunk people. Everyone was passing around a joint. And when it got to me, the boy said: ‘Trust me, you’ll love it.’ So I tried it. And I did love it. Next thing you know, I was going out every weekend. I started drinking heavily. I was high all the time. My grades began to drop. But I was also getting cooler. I was never alone anymore. I was hanging out with popular people. We all hyped each other up, so it was easy to ignore the consequences of our behavior. But whenever I was alone again, I felt like I didn’t know myself anymore. I was heading down the wrong path. That’s not how I was brought up. So I had to get conscious. I had to be honest about what brings me happiness: writing poetry, reading books, and sometimes being alone. I backed away from the party lifestyle. I became more selfish with my time. The other night I ran into a few of my old friends, and they were a little mad because I hadn’t been around. They said I was acting like I was above it all. But that’s not the case. I’m just at a different stage of my life.” (Johannesburg, South Africa)

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“There are those of the opinion that Stanton’s curation of the Nigerian experience is nothing short of poverty porn as a white man from a capitalist nation that paints an African country as a third world nation riddled with poverty," says the site. "On the other hand, there are those that believe that Stanton’s work is an accurate and blunt portrayal of life in Nigeria. According to these set of people, HONY just placed a mirror on what it means to live in Nigeria."

Over the past five years, HONY has also expanded to feature stories from over 20 different countries, including South Africa.

In South Africa, the HONY team has been meeting up with different people whose stories gave an account into how we, as people, relate with each other.

One of the stories posted on the HONY Facebook page, for example, was that of a woman who started bodybuilding after her chemotherapy and how she was judged by people.


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“I started bodybuilding after my chemotherapy. At first it was just a way to get healthy again. But I discovered I was good at it. I started winning competitions. And I got hooked,” she told the HONY team.

She said her then boyfriend didn’t like it. 

“He thought it made me less desirable," she added. "But the worse our relationship got, the more I focused on working out. It just felt so great to be recognised for something. I was really, really good at it.”