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Humans of New York: When Comments Become Part of the Art Experience

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I grew up in a generation where free speech was a central tenant of existence. I'm an artist, and I think there are absolutely times to shock and offend. It's healthy, and when it works, it changes minds. But it's one thing to criticize a paradigm and a whole other to personally attack a person. Still legal? Absolutely. Just a little distasteful.

What inspired me to think about the role of speech in our life is actually social media. Along with five million other people, I follow a page called Humans of New York on Facebook. Documentary photographer Brandon Stanton shoots portraits of New Yorkers from all strokes of life alongside a short caption. In years past, the page epitomized that classic saying "restores faith in humanity" because photos of older men talking about lost time with their children due to addiction, or women who overcome a young pregnancy to excel at life, are met with comments of encouragement and compassion. But as the site became more and more popular, the comments have become more polarized. Sometimes the discussions pleading with people not to judge even get more reactions than the actual comments celebrating the subject.

It seems like my premise might be simply: Don't be a prick. Yes, that would be lovely, but I actually have several reflections on the topic.

The simplest is that those of us who love to view and respond to art need to understand these new parameters we live in. The Internet has made the world smaller than ever before. I think in the past we've had no boundaries with our reactions to art, and even tearing apart a piece or character can lead us somewhere. For instance, I think F. Scott Fitzgerald's Daisy had everything coming to her. I'd have no issue tearing her shallow, shortsighted character to shreds in a literary discussion group on The Great Gatsby. Brandon Stanton's subjects on HONY may even provoke this type of passionate response in you. But we must somehow remember, whether we live in Denver or Tampa, London or Bombay, that this person is a living soul in New York City. Art is no longer about distant subjects. We're all connected, especially on a platform like Facebook.

Making a plea to "be nice," sounds so trite, but one of my fears is that these people who express their vulnerabilities to us, whether it's in front of Stanton's camera lens or in a radio documentary like This American Life (which also has a large following on its Facebook page) will stumble upon their story and feel bullied by a million cyber bullies. I imagine that can hurt just as much as being bullied in a high school hallway because, in this case, you have opened yourself up. Perhaps you've allowed yourself to feel elated by the experience only to be brought down by Anonymous. The personal nature of documentary makes attacks that much more personal.

Thursday Brandon Stanton posted on the HONY page that some commenters have been restricted from commenting. They can still view the page, but his assistants have been instructed to ban commenters that engage in personal attacks on the subjects.

The comments on this post were largely supportive, but there were some accusations of censorship. We all have the right to free speech, but I think artists have the right to curate the experience of their exhibition.

On a practical level, he could have kept the comments going and I'm positive that plenty of people would still receive a richness to their day from visiting the HONY page. But like installation art--this is going to sound crazy, I know--but I think everything about the platform is part of the artistic experience. In this case, I'm saying HONY Is not just about photos, but about interfacing with humans on, yes, Facebook. His choice to moderate, in my opinion, serves the end goal of HONY being an experience about celebrating humans.

This is not to say some moderation makes HONY all rainbows and sunshine. HONY has at times shocked me. I remember a macro shot from March that showed a man's hands as he lit a cigarette. He reflected on witnessing fellow soldiers assassinate POWs right in front of him. He confessed to being nervous around people of Middle Eastern descent. You can comment in a negative way on a photo like this. You can even be horrified. But you can do all of this without attacking the subject. In fact, in a lot of comments this is what happened.

Good art, as with good stories, has characters with with warts, characters with flaws. It's why we can all relate to rock music. This brings me to one more reflection on comments: I find that a lot of people counter the negativity with hypotheticals. "Maybe she has a job. Maybe she just put her son through a life-saving surgery and that's why she's broke. You don't know her."

That could be true, and we all know someone who has shown that heroic part of the human condition. But documentary is sometimes better than fiction because it doesn't just capture the heroic moments, it captures our inbetween stages -- just because someone happened to have a camera. Take an alcoholic, for example. In the deepest throes of addiction, there's probably a day that he finds himself reflecting on how he's destroying his life. But this reflection doesn't have weight yet. The next day he drinks again. In fact, it's not until three months later that he walks into his first AA meeting. Does it makes that reflection three months ago any less human?

We share memes all the time that are meant to inspire, but that's not necessarily the purpose of documentary. It can be an effect, certainly, but when it comes down to it, documentary just is what is. Let's not judge it. We don't know the beginning. We don't know the end.