Bioethics Blogs

Is there an ethics code for storytelling?: the phenomenon of Humans of New York

By: Emily Jenab

Humans of New York has become inescapable. Photographer Brandon Stanton is singlehandedly telling multiple stories: effectively creating empathy in the cold, often isolating experience of New York; unearthing the humanity in the overlooked. It is noble work that has reached millions.

I have often found myself consumed by the stories and photographs of the ignored, not to mention pleased with his work in Iran and Pakistan, defying stereotypes with each humanizing tale posted. His work seems to be the modern-day activism that we have come to love: a way of creating connections to faces on our screens in a globalized world.

We see the stories he presents – a fashion designer from Ghana, a single mother, a tired student – and feel as though we know the faces looking back at us. We can feel the personal permeating through social media. Our globalized world is reflected for our ready, instant consumption. His page immerses us in the most intimate thoughts of passersby, allowing for a brief emotional connection with an image or a caption.

Yet, what are the ethical implications of this kind of production? I now find myself becoming uneasy with this Facebook page, which is legitimately a social phenomenon. This raises the question: is it exploitative for someone to become popular at the hands of sometimes-marginalized groups? I will touch upon Stanton’s systems of compensation and charity, but that does not take away from the general unsettling nature of sharing one’s stories, particularly for marginalized individuals, and not having a direct, uniform source of tangible compensation for every person.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.