Brandon Stanton’s ongoing photography project Humans of New York has paved the way for dozens of spin-offs and parodies. One local rendition was created by Pine View high school journalism students who banded together to respond to stigmas and stereotypes among peers.
Eleventh-grader Suzanne Brown, the creator of Humans of Pine View, is a member of the school’s Sensitivity Task Force, a group of students involved in campus clubs who seek to combat bullying and a toxic environment that sometimes influences Pine View, especially on social media. “We were all brainstorming ideas for the Force and I’d been thinking about a recreation of Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York, which shares the stories of strangers on the street,” says Brown. “The purpose is to show that everyone has a story, and for Humans of Pine View I wanted to expand upon that and add some more positivity to social networks, especially Facebook, where a lot of negativity circulates.”
Brown is a staff member of The Torch, Pine View’s student-run newspaper and one of its two written journalism publications, along with the yearbook. Most of the stories are collected by other members of the Torch staff, with support of yearbookers. Each week, Brown assigns four students to spread out around the school campus to find a student, teacher or staff member. Each story, which is posted on the Humans of Pine View Facebook page, includes a quote, ranging in length from a single sentence to a long story, and a photograph, either of the subject’s face or an anonymous photo, possibly of a hand, a shoe, the back of a head or just cropped to not include the face. All of the posts themselves are anonymous, but in the small Pine View community, many students prefer to stay private.
There is a strategy to collecting stories, and Brown bases hers on Stanton’s, which he demonstrated at a college lecture in 2014. “You don’t just walk up to somebody and expect them to tell you all of their life’s struggles. You have to ask guiding questions that continue the conversation," Brown says. "People are reluctant to tell their stories, so you have to be smart about narrowing the questions down until you get a very genuine response." Staff are expected to begin with questions like, “What is your greatest struggle right now?" "What makes you happiest?" "What are you most looking forward to?" "What piece of advice would you give to someone?” Interviewers then narrow down their questions to more specific and personal queries as the interview goes on. This way, they receive honest quotes that hopefully reveal the complexities of the humans of Pine View.
Posts cover a wide range of topics and emotions, from health problems to family issues, from happiness and friendship to depression and anxiety. “No matter whether the story is very happy or about depression, it’s important that these stories are shared, so that we all have a realistic picture of what people are going through,” Brown says. “The purpose of the project is to get a deeper understanding of the people around you and their experiences, and I think that people are starting to understand that.”
Allie Odishelidze and Annie Hassan are two members of the Torch staff who have collected several of the stories posted on the Humans of Pine View page. “It’s weird at first,” Odishelidze says. “You see people you know and ask them very personal questions, and when you see them again around school you feel like you know them on a personal level. I’ve gained a great understanding about how diverse thinking is around campus.”
“When Suzanne first started the project I thought it was a great idea,” says Hassan. “We’re all the center of our own lives, but when we go out and talk to other people, we get to see their side.”
Brown has noted the impact that Humans of Pine View has had on her peers: “There’s so much positivity. When I initially launched the page, I had so many people come up to me and say, 'Oh my God, I love Humans of Pine View. I think the stories are really important.’”
The scope of the project has gone beyond Pine View, and many of the Facebook page’s 470 likes come from people outside the school community who simply enjoy the opportunity to read the students' stories.