For the past two weeks, Humans Of New York’s Brandon Stanton has been in Europe documenting the stories of refugees. Because of its accessible style— minimalist photos with short stories posted on a Facebook page — HONY has been able to reach a much wider audience on Facebook than most news outlets, given that HONY has 15 million followers to The New York Times’ 10 million. But putting a human face on the crisis, such as a woman whose husband was lost at sea, a man whose son was kidnapped and held for ransom and a former Syrian army officer who was forced to kill families in their homes, HONY’s coverage has galvanized public interest in a way that other media coverage has been unable to do.
Photojournalism has been an effective tool in garnering sympathy and raising awareness for world issues since its conception. Earlier this year, a photo of a drowned Syrian boy whose body washed ashore on a Turkish beach went viral and sparked public outrage. There’s a difference, however, between sharing a photo on social media with a sympathetic yet empty caption and actually doing something helpful. HONY posts have actually been able to inspire helpful acts. Inspired by the heart wrenching stories of labor workers in Pakistan, HONY readers this summer raised over 2 million dollars to help end bonded labor. To conclude his refugee series, Stanton asked readers on Tuesday to donate to an existing Kickstarter supporting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a nongovernmental organization providing supplies to refugees. In just five days, the campaign has already raised over $1 million.
The mass availability of Facebook also allows individuals to feel engaged with the news. The comments section under each HONY photo has become a forum for people to offer their individual help to those in need. After Stanton posted the story of a refugee seeking help for his brother in need of surgery, a Facebook user in his area reached out with help to give, and Stanton put her in contact with the man pictured. While the mainstream media have been unable to facilitate this sort of personal connection, stories like these are a common occurrence on HONY posts.
With its direct, forum-based platform and personalized accounts of a global crisis, HONY has been able to cover the refugee crisis in a more humanitarian and effective way than other news outlets. Given the derisive attitude of most journalists toward Facebook, it is ironic, then, that the most helpful and in-depth examination of what it means to be a refugee has come from a social
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A version of this article appeared in the October 13 print edition. Email Mandy Freebairn at [email protected]