Millennium Post

Humans everywhere

Our age with its profileration of information to the point of overload has attracted a lot of comments about the advantages and ills of data what all have access to. Many remind us to be careful of what we wish for and warn us of having too much of a good thing. Yet, the unifying platform of the Internet allows us to look at ourselves more closely than ever before and through the lenses of other viewers and voyeurs from every inhabited continent and all age groups. The love of the self has given us the ‘selfie’.

The eye for apparent trivia has given the world a wonder of websites, one of which is the much acclaimed photo blog called Humans of New York. Started in 2010, by the New York-based photographer Brandon Stanton, the work has grown to portray over 6,000 people from all walks of life and in a medley of moods in the Bog Apple, and has also resulted in two best-selling book while achieving cult status in a genre of its own. With nearly 15 million followers on social media, across Facebook and Instagram “HONY”, the popular acronym of the exercise, has spawned many imitators and spin-offs and has entered conversation and creative discourse everywhere from street corners to cafes and campuses the world over.­­­­

But what is it that makes the day to day life of ordinary citizens so appealing to the world at large? Is it the voyeur in us that is tickled? Is it the soul connect that we feel for unglamorous people living out their unspectacular lives which makes us identify with them and understand them better? Is it our championing of the common man? The artistry of the street portraits cannot be denied. The interviews of commonplace New Yorkers who are not always mindful of being cogs in, what some hold to be, the centre of the world, complete the picture.

New York certainly is one of the greatest of the world’s cities. Therefore the underbelly of the metropolis, warts and all, could enjoy currency just for the location alone. And yet, is not any city as beautiful as the eye of the photographer can make it? I have seen the work of master Indian lens men make their cities and subjects ethereal in form, shape and silhouette. They evoke myriad momentary flutters filling our senses with their experiments in colour and hues, and tones in monochrome. I have seen Calcutta rendered like a dream, the buzz of Bombay captured in camera, the regal stoniness of Delhi spread haughtily in coffee table glossies.

The eye of the outsider captures the quotidian in a way a native may never see. But, at the same time, without thorough familiarity with one’s city or subject, everyday moments cannot be photographed skilfully or creatively. Thus the very outsider-looking-in combined with an insider’s insight is the split personality demanded of the cameraman and has a lot of do with the quality of the pictures he takes. It is a strict tightrope he has to walk while working. The latent energy of a frame of life, and Humans of New York is a collection of thousands of vignettes, the thousand word story that each image shouts out is coaxed out of situations that most people may walk pass without a glance. Finding the most expressive moment and capturing it in a flawless frame is what makes this work so special and this is what has given it its iconic status on the Internet.

Do cities influence the way we live? How much does metropolis get into our consciousness, our bloodstream? Is a location ingrained in us when we are born or when we grow up or live for many years in a place? Is a Venetian different from a Londoner, a Muscovite from a Los Angelino? This is a question that has sociological, cultural, economic and national dimensions. And there are the obvious differences – the pace of people walking for instance, the willingness to help strangers, and the social etiquette observed.

The unseen differences lie in attitudes and paradigms that come across in conversations and social intercourse. Humans of New York started as a series of photographs but soon carried small sections of comments and one-liners from the subjects themselves. This formed the verbal commentary that rounded off the picture. Closer home, we know that a Mumbaikar speaks differently from a Calcuttan and a Delhi-ite’s speech is not at all like what a Madrasi’s.

Our clothes also define us. Delhi is smart and Bombay sharp, if popular generalisations are to be believed. People dress down in Chennai and those in Calcutta are not very clothes conscious. This variety of difference is fast eroding in the homogenising trend of Indian fashion wear today. Because of television and nationalised media channels, the Internet and the like, we are becoming increasingly uniform, little different from any other. Streets are also starting to look the same. The billboards advertising the leading FMCG and white goods brands, the telecom companies and soft drinks are identical in every city in India.

The snaking flyovers and the rabbit hutches of underground railway stations, the new low-slung metropolitan buses and the Bollywood film posters, the supermarket chains, cloned shopping malls and multiplexes have all contributed to the bland sameness that we encounter in Indian cities today. Even the smaller towns are much of a muchness. Therefore, the work of a cameraman documenting the lived life of a city – and bringing out a personality of a metropolis as distinctive and different from any other – is all the more of a challenge. In visually rendering the image of our cities we could do well to take a page out of HONY and see how much further we could go from what has already been achieved. We don’t have to try too hard because life is boundless in its uniqueness and offers us infinite variety through the days and seasons.

Ultimately, it is the cult of the common – the beauty of ordinariness that Humans of New York celebrates. It reminds us that life is lovely, and the greatest gift we all have is the fact that we are alive. It shows us the nobility in the humdrum rhythms and the pinch of surprise that can be sprinkled on the most routine of activities performed everyday and without particular attention – living by habit, breathing out of inertia, walking by rote, busy in nothing but the unhurried urge to stay alive.

The author is a writer and documentary film-maker who lives sometimes in Calcutta and sometimes in Delhi

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