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Humans Of New York Isn’t Journalism, But It Helps Us Get Beyond The Headline

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By Karin Wahl Jorgensen, Cardiff University:

More than 59m people around the world are currently displaced as a result of conflict and crisis. More than 500,000 of these refugees – the majority of them escaping the deadly civil war in Syria – have fled to Europe over the past several months. These are staggering numbers, and as with any large-scale human crisis, one key challenge is to comprehend the human suffering behind them.

Image source: almazcamporeale.wordpress.com
Image source: almazcamporeale.wordpress.com

Over the past two weeks, New York photographer Brandon Stanton – best known for his project Humans of New York (HONY) – has documented the human stories behind the migrant crisis, in partnership with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Through HONY, Stanton has catalogued the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, using photographs and interviews. He has gained popularity across an array of social media platforms, including Facebook (15.5m likes), Instagram (3.9m followers) and Twitter (356,000 followers), and his book documenting the project became a New York Times bestseller. On September 29, he announced that he would be sharing stories from refugees who are making their way across Europe. He said:

These migrants are part of one of the largest population movements in modern history. But their stories are composed of unique and singular tragedies. In the midst of the current ‘migrant crisis’, there are millions of different reasons for leaving home. And there are millions of different hardships that refugees face as they search for a new home.

Since then, the site has shared the stories of government clerks from Baghdad, Nepalese engineers, Afghani interpreters and Syrian waiters who left everything behind and embarked on treacherous and sometimes deadly journeys to reach safety. But the question remains: how much can readers learn about a complex, global, political issue like mass migration from a handful of stories about individual people?

Pulling On The Heartstrings

The project quite deliberately tugs on the heartstrings of its audiences in its attempt to generate empathy for the refugees. One typical post, featuring a photograph of a crying woman, tells the story of how she lost her husband at sea after their boat capsized: “The waves were high. I could hear him calling me but he got further and further away. Eventually a boat found me.”

Another post, featuring a photograph of a father and his daughter, recounts the father’s lament:

I wish I could have done more for her. Her life has been nothing but struggle. She hasn’t known many happy moments. She never had a chance to taste childhood. When we were getting on the plastic boat, I heard her say something that broke my heart. She saw her mother being crushed by the crowd, and she screamed: ‘Please don’t kill my mother! Kill me instead!’

Because of its distinctive style and approach, the site has not been immune to ridicule and criticism. Countless parody accounts have sprung up. These include Millennials of New York, which attempts to offer stories that are “a little less inspirational”; Felines of New York, Lizard People of New York, Pigeons of Boston and Goats of Bangladesh – to mention just a few.

But HONY also has more serious critics to reckon with. Some suggest that these stories are mere caricatures, which oversimplify and sentimentalise what are often very complex stories, and seek to emotionally manipulate audiences through clickbaiting. Debates rage over whether it can be seen as a form of journalism and, if not, how we should understand the project.

Critics may be right that Humans of New York is not journalism as we know it. After all, it shies away from claims to objectivity and is explicit about its moral aim to humanise the headlines; to dig beneath the numbers and reveal the human stories that might make audiences empathise with the suffering of distant others. The project takes place in partnership with the UN, and therefore more appropriately belongs safely in the category of humanitarian advocacy through storytelling.

Time-Honoured Traditions

Yet HONY borrows from long-standing journalistic and documentary practices. For example, the British social documentary movement, which started in the 1930s, was premised on the importance of telling the stories of “ordinary” people to counter the dominance of elite and upper-class in the media.

My own research on the role of emotion in journalistic story-telling demonstrates that the most highly regarded journalism – Pulitzer Prize winning reports – draw extensively on emotive and personal story-telling as a means of illustrating what are often very complex and abstract issues, ranging from the fate of the New Jersey fishing industry to breakthroughs in the use of DNA technology for medical treatments.

This is precisely because it is only through such personal stories that we can step into the shoes of others – whose lives and experiences may be very different from our own. Humans of New York may be sentimental, simplistic and saccharine to some, but it also represents a major achievement. Using time-honoured journalistic techniques, it has shown its audience that the personal and private stories of refugees represent a shared political reality, which we ignore at our peril.

The Conversation

Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, Professor is the Director of Research Development and Environment, School of Journalism, Cardiff University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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