Humans of New York: Photographic blog partners with UN for dispatches from Iraq

Brandon Stanton is at the start of a 50-day world tour, which will see him photograph Kenya, Vietnam and the tribes in the Amazon, among others

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The Independent Online

The photographer behind blog Humans of New York (Hony) has taken his social documenting to another level by partnering with the United Nations to shine a light on untold stories from various nooks of the world and his first stop? Iraq.

Hony’s founder and sole photographer Brandon Stanton touched down last week, just as Islamist militants advanced in the north of the Middle Eastern country, as they seized towns and became the target of US air strikes following the persecution of the Christian and Yazidi populations.

But as the United States deliberated over the implications of arming Kurdish fighters against the progressing Isis assault, Stanton was out, armed with just his camera, photographing civilians caught up in the raging violence.

He is at the start of a 50-day tour of the world, “gathering portraits and stories [with the purpose of raising] awareness for the [UN’s] Millennium Development Goals,” he said.

Stanton – who usually takes pictures of unwitting New Yorkers, asking them deeply personal questions about their regrets or aspirations (resulting in oft-poetic responses) – first visited Erbil, the capital city of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, which is at the centre of concern that Isis could eventually claim it.

The recent developments in Iraq have been a surprise to the organisers of the long-planned trip, and threw up challenges for the photographer, who in collaboration with the UN had intended to capture the lives of the Iraqi people removed from the war-torn environs many people in the West associate them with.

Stanton told The Independent that it provided him with “probably the most tragic stories I've ever encountered.”

A man in a wheelchair said his favourite moments are when he sees his mother happy. He said that the happiest she had ever been was: “when I was a child, some German doctors told us that I could have a surgery in Italy, and my legs would work again. She was so happy she started crying. But I never had the money to go.”

He then showed Stanton a picture of his head photoshopped on a healthy body to “see what I would like”.

But the prevailing and all-consuming situation of war has rendered Stanton’s usual “what’s been the saddest moment in your life” type of question difficult in Iraq.

“She always dreams about the bombs,” a father says, pictured next to his smiling daughter, in another of Stanton's photos.

Gabo Arora, Senior Advisor for Policy and Partnerships at the UN and organiser of the trip, said that the Isis advancement and US-led intervention was “very unexpected”.

He said the aim of the project is to highlight the eight Millennium Development Goals, which each UN state agreed should be achieved by 2015, such as the reduction of child mortality or the need to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.

“We’ve made a lot of progress on the millennium goals, but what we’ve never really done is try and get the emotive element and stories from people,” Arora said.

“We’ve always worked with big celebrities like George Clooney or Angelina Jolie, but we really wanted to work with new media ambassadors - ordinary people with extraordinary followers.”

He said three million of Hony’s nine million fans on Facebook engage with the page each day and “from a behavioural science perspective could have more effect on people because they’re actually interacting with it.”

Stanton, who isn’t currently accompanied by Arora, has been given complete creative control.

He was “caught off-guard” by the fighting in Iraq, Arora said, but still wanted to show Iraq as more than a place of war with “people trying to develop, people with hopes and dreams”.

Stanton told The Independent: “The unfolding situation in Iraq did present me with probably the most tragic stories I've ever encountered.

“It's one thing to hear about a humanitarian crisis on the news, but it's another entirely to hear these stories one at a time, in unforgiving detail.

“It was a very eye opening experience to learn the level of tragedy that such a large swatch of humanity is forced to endure.”

He also said that his Middle Eastern subjects are “more receptive” to having their pictures taken compared with New Yorkers, “because the culture is so geared toward granting favors and obliging guests”.

Stanton should now have left Iraq and will arrive in Jordan any day now for the next leg of his journey, where he will document the plight of Syrian refugees.

From there he is travelling onto the African nations of Uganda, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, then India and Vietnam.

A tentative stop in El Salvador has been scheduled, before he then goes onto the Amazon region, “most likely in Ecuador, to highlight the plight of the indigenous people” before finishing in Haiti and returning home 22-23 September.

He said he is most excited about visiting “the most misunderstood places, because I feel that's where the work has the potential to make the most impact” though he isn't sure where they are.

“I imagine the most misunderstood places are those which are in the news the most, because they tend to only be associated with violence.  Iraq was certainly one of them.”

This isn't the first time that Stanton has embarked on an intrepid photojournalism jaunt - in December 2012, contrary to his government's travel advice, he went to Iran of his own volition to photograph the people there, too.

See Humans of New York's Iraq coverage here.