Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton's "World Tour" involves traveling to 10 countries to showcase the Humans of the Developing World, or rather to answer the novel question: "Are there humans in the developing world?"
Through HONY's lens, the unfortunate answer is no. The photos in HONY's World Tour are not of humans, but instead of "human experiences" packaged by Stanton into bite-sized images ready to be spoon-fed to his unquestioning Western audience. Take, for example, the photo of a severely disabled Iraqi man in a wheelchair. The caption reads: "I photoshopped my head onto a healthy body, to see what I would look like." We, the viewers, may be shocked, disturbed, disgusted, or even deeply moved by this image, but we understand nothing of this man's reality. This Iraqi, like all the subjects in HONY photographs, becomes merely a vehicle for our emotional responses. Stanton's "(Third) World Tour" offers us more than just exotic experiences of tragedy—it allows us access to a full range of emotional pornography. We are uplifted by the American family that was finally allowed to adopt their Ethiopian orphan, we are humbled by the young girl who speaks all the languages of children on the street, and saddened by the Ugandan war victim. All in all, we come away feeling good about our voyeuristic activities. We even congratulate ourselves on the effort expended for our passive viewing, liking, and sharing on social media. Our 30 seconds of empathy have suddenly become a stand-in for "giving back" to a global community.
In reality, we are only viewing Stanton's circus spectacle of the most exotic, unbelievable, and horrifying human specimens. And yet, the strength of our feelings allows us to conflate accurate representation and evocative art. Stanton seduces us into believing that his photography captures a certain essence of a person, a culture, or a nation. These "portraits and stories," in Stanton's words, are dripping with the bias of a privileged American. They are one-dimensional depictions of people who have had little choice in how they are represented. The HONY story, in true Western tradition, echoes the exoticized presentation of the native by the white, male mediator. And sadly, these photographs become our only point of access into the "remote" lives of these people.
We do not deny that Stanton has an impressive creative ability. HONY, like any good work of fiction, allows us to feel emotionally connected to people who appear to occupy an entirely unrelated universe. This is certainly a fiction. Each country in the "World Tour" has been produced in its modern form through interactions with the West, be they trade, or, in most cases, imperialism and exploitation. But HONY does not force us to confront the ways in which these strangers' lives are so intimately connected to our own. I am able to drink my coffee, made from beans grown in Uganda, poured into a plastic Starbucks cup made at a factory fueled by Iraqi oil, while looking at HONY's photos on my iPhone made with plundered Congolese minerals, because people in the developing world endure the political strife and economic turbulence created by our demand for their resources.
This oversight may not be the fault of the photographer, but a purposeful flaw in the development of the project, which in itself is only a high-profile advertisement for the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). HONY, like the MDGs, does not implicate Westerners for the poverty, suffering, and conflict in these countries. Instead, the photographs present a decontextualized narrative of poverty and conflict that are disconnected from the global imbalances that created them.
The deepest and most fundamental problem with HONY's "World Tour," however, is that attaching a selection of human faces to remote areas marked by violence, political instability, and limited access to resources dehumanizes its subjects. Making people in "faraway places" accessible promotes a Western-centric view of humanity. It relies on the assumption that the Western experience is the default human experience. The lives of everyone else, on the other hand, are deviant and exotic. HONY's project creates different rungs of humanity. Through HONY's lens, Westerners exemplify the universal human experience, while the humanity of the rest (majority) of the world is proportionate to the number of "likes" they receive.