Book Review: Humans // Brandon Stanton

Photo by Brent N. Clarke/FilmMagic

Humans is the third book by Brandon Stanton, the creator of the immensely popular photoblog ‘Humans of New York’ (HONY). With 18m likes on Facebook and 11m followers on Instagram, Stanton’s street portraits and accompanying captions have captured the hearts and minds of millions, keen to dip into the vulnerability of humanity.

Humans is a carefully assembled compilation of as yet untold stories, detailing some of the most joyous and traumatising times in the lives of Stanton’s interviewees. It brings all the emotional turmoil you’d expect as you pass from page to page, reading of peoples’ love and loss; success and failure. Throughout the book you’ll find some individuals that you pity, some you envy, some who remind you of people in your own life. You’ll find some whose stories reflect your past, some whose might become your future and some whose words fit perfectly with where you are in your life right now.

While the book doesn’t follow a structure as such, a handful of similar stories are placed together, focussing on addiction, marriage or a particular familial relationship. Generally the stories are told sporadically, though this may have been intentional, to reflect the changeability of life. The book is divided into three large sections, each beginning with details of the author’s journey in writing the book. ‘Approach’, ‘Randomness’ and ‘Struggle’ describe how Stanton learnt to get through to the real person beneath the shield, the importance of randomness to HONY in a world where only conflict makes the headlines and the transformative power of struggle and why that’s how everyone’s story begins.

The book is full of compelling stories, however there are a few that linger in your mind right to the end. Some of the most thought provoking include a former ‘incel kid’ turned ‘pickup artist’, who used his interview to teach the world how to manipulate women into bed using half compliments, declaring, “they get addicted to feelings”; a rather cynical old couple, paired as part of an arranged marriage who state that “love is for useless people” and far too many women trapped in loveless marriages, resigned only to be a wife and mother, who rediscover themselves once their husbands have died or they get divorced.

Another striking element of Humans is the consistent reminder of how important religion remains in some parts of the world, despite increasing secularisation globally. The most prominent of these is an Indonesian man who states “When a man lives without God, it’s very dangerous. You have no reference, no principles, no precepts. You are almost equal to animal”. Humans is full of stories and sentiments like this that, good or bad, leave you speechless. Some other examples include the story of how a man lost his foot to a blizzard aged 17, after falling down a ravine whilst escaping the abusive staff of his orphanage, and a first person account of solidarity from the Vietnam War akin to the Christmas football game in no man’s land of 1914.

Arguably, the most important thing this book does is draw your attention to events and circumstances around the world that you weren’t aware of, encouraging you to learn more about them. For example, after reading a survivor’s harrowing account of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, I felt compelled to learn more about the motives behind it as, considering the scale of the tragedy, I knew very little of its origins. Similarly, from the Rohingya Refugee Camp, a Bangladeshi teenager tells of when the military came and killed most his village and the impact that had on his future. Again, you feel obliged to remedy your ignorance and find out what exactly happened that the mainstream media failed to document.

Humans might be an existential crisis inducing emotional roller coaster, but it’s also a 450-page lesson in gratitude and empathy that everyone should read.

Words by Louisa Merrick-White

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