August 19, 2015

Some people are born great. Other carve out their greatness with great effort. And then, there is HONY.

Humans of New York, or HONY as it is more popularly known as, is an act of love that has already written its page in history books. It is a phenomenon born out of love of the arts. It is a curiosity for knowing others through the lens of a camera. The concept is stunning in its simplicity. A man with passion, a camera, a pencil and a notebook. Even the legendary Steve Jobs could not have improved on this model.

Brandon Stanton was a bond trader in Chicago. He made and lost a lot of money as well as his job, then taking to the streets in order to catalogue the people of New York city. His only tool was a camera with a single lens. Soon his photo blog of pictures and little snippets about the people he was chronicling became viral on the internet. Today he has millions of followers on Facebook at least. His Humans of New York book topped bestseller lists and he is a celebrity in the world of photography.

And then, he lands in Pakistan.

Pakistan is a unique place. It is a land of paradoxes, parallels, contradictions and extreme passions for just about any and everything. It is a novelist’s dream come true. The sheer amount of interesting subject matter to be found here is mind boggling. People love with the same intensity as they fight. They build up heros only to trash them when they fail.

There is rampant corruption and then there is upright honesty. There is extreme wealth and there is crippling poverty. The country boasts gorgeous wind-swept deserts and towering, majestic mountains. There are breathtaking valleys with rivers coursing through and there are beaches of fine sand and blue seas.

And than there are the people, at least 180 million of them. People who are resilient, resourceful and determined to make things work, no matter what the odds. They have their usual daily grind, their moments of happiness and sorrow and frustrations, just like others all over the world. But western audiences seldom realize this. The reality of the massive, peace loving silent majority is over shadowed by a very small but the loud, extremist and frequently violent minority.

images-1I have followed HONY for quite some time on Facebook. I am an aspiring photographer and street work fascinates me. I find it very intimidating to go up to a complete images stranger and ask their permission to capture their “being” in a photograph. Brandon makes it look easy and natural. His work speaks for itself and now people feel honored to be represented in his blog. So, when one day I opened up my Facebook page and saw a “desi” face on HONY’s website, which sure enough was from Pakistan, my heart skipped a beat.  Brandon was in Pakistan. From the very first image of Pakistan that appeared, what greatly intrigued me were people’s comments. How did people abroad view Pakistan through the HONY lens.

As I went through hundreds and sometimes thousands of comments, I realized that a phenomenon was developing. The boundaries and borders that existed in people’s minds about Pakistan and Pakistani people were coming down faster than the Berlin Wall. People from different countries were actually saying positive things about Pakistan. People wanted to come to Pakistan and experience its beauty and culture. Comments from India were most overwhelming. There was so much cross border love and affection flowing around. At the very least, the Indians recognized how similar we are with common issues and values. There were times when I would find tears flowing down my face, seeing the love being expressed for my Pakistan. It was finally being seen as a country where “normal” beings live. A country one may want to experience for themselves.

This was huge. Not since maybe the fifties or early sixties had the international community looked at Pakistan this way. Remember when foreign royalty, presidents and other dignitaries would line up to visit Pakistan? Princes used to study in our universities and PIA was the premier airline of the world. I felt something of that old pride and joy coming back when I was reading these blogs.

Unknown-2Than something even bigger happened. The blog turned into a cause. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that a part of me wished that HONY would only focus on the good and beautiful side of Pakistan. I was afraid of what else he might capture. And he did. Brandon soon began to come up with pictures of the hardships and struggles of the common people. Images and stories of poverty, drugs, marital abuse and bonded labour started to surface. Once again, I kept a keen eye on the commentary from the public, the people who have never experienced such horrors in their daily lives in the West.

The response was very supportive. In fact, some fund raisers were initiated to help these souls. The most prominent example is that of bonded labour campaigner Syeda Ghulam Fatima. Because of HONY’s blog, more than a million dollars were raised in less than three days. People were tripping over each other to donate to her cause. Brandon had put taboo issues in the limelight for Pakistanis  themselves to face and acknowledge as well.

Personally, I was very moved with the story of a Lahori woman, photographed in a yellow dress holding her beautiful little daughter. She had left an abusive relationship, was homeless and was infected with  the Hepatitis C virus. She was so desperate for the future of her child that she was going to give her up for adoption but was unable to go through with it. Even more touching, a young man was trying to help her.  But with very limited resources and a family of his own to support, he was finding it very difficult. An uproar erupted in the woman’s support. We bombarded HONY with requests to re-locate her and help interested people get in touch with her. As a result, the woman has been traced and is now being rehabilitated. She will be given shelter, employment and treatment.

Overnight, Brandon had become a social activist. HONY had become a tool for change. Pakistan can do that to you.

The author is a US-based doctor, social activist and aspiring painter and photographer.