Humans of New York and Philosophy
How to See a Face
By Roberto Sirvent and Duncan Reyburn
Even in our image-saturated world, the face remains the primary signal of identity. From infancy, the face initiates that all-important moment of genuine recognition. We find ourselves mirrored in the lives of others as they welcome us into the world. “Meaning is a physiognomy,” says Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations; which is to say that the face is a gateway not only to understanding people but to actually understanding anything at all. Even our idioms express this: we face up to the truth or even face the music; we can put on a brave face, lose face, or save face; and we consider the face of things even while we recognize that there is more to everything than what the face on its own reveals.
The face is a challenge to quite a lot of the philosophy that can be overly preoccupied with the communion of mind and mind and of thought with thought. The face is a stark reminder of our raw materiality. Those of us who would like to live in a bubble detached from our flesh and blood have only to look at the faces of others to discover that life in a bubble simply will not work. We have to face the facts.
Without the face, the world would be an entirely alien place, even more bewildering to us than it already is. But with the face, human connection becomes possible. So it’s really no wonder that the face has such a privileged place in the history of art and photography. And it’s also no wonder that Brandon Stanton’s hugely popular and disarmingly beautiful collection of images on his photoblog www.humansofnewyork.com centers on the face. Stanton treats New York not as a city but as a world made up of faces. In the process, New York ceases to be a gigantic film set and becomes what it really is: the scenography against which actual lives are lived out. We see only a snippet view of other lives, but it is enough to penetrate even the coldest of hearts.
Even to the uninitiated, it will soon become clear that Stanton is not trying to create the impression of some ridiculous and tyrannical ideal. The men in his work are not square jawed demi-gods with Herculean torsos, and the women do not glow with pore-free photoshopped skin and delicate repose. And yet, his models are arguably more perfect even than the ideals of the Ancient Greeks. The British journalist-philosopher G. K. Chesterton points out that in fact the Ancient Greeks, whose notions of perfection still seem to infect so many of the images we see in advertising, have actually robbed us of a richer experience of the world around us because they have “committed us to … a worship of one aesthetic type alone.”
This commitment is really an attempt to tame reality, to make it entirely palatable, predictable, and comprehensible. But it is also a “terrible sin against the variety of life.” It ultimately “terrifies all mankind out of their natural love” of all things vital, energetic, and even ugly. The wonder of the face, for Chesterton, is found in its distinctiveness. Even identical twins, when closely compared with each other, expose differences in one another. No two faces are exactly alike.
We may sometimes too easily judge the faces of others as ugly without recognizing that “to call another [person’s] face ugly because it powerfully expresses another [person’s] soul is like complaining that a cabbage has not two legs.” We ought to be careful not to judge a thing entirely by what it is not, rather than by what it is. We need, in other words, to be careful not to merely approach the world according to a neat set of prejudices and expectations. Sometimes we need to let the world show itself to us, and, of course, the face is the primary site of this disclosure. Chesterton concludes his reverie on the face by saying that the “moment we have snapped the spell of conventional beauty, there are a million beautiful faces waiting for us everywhere, just as there are a million beautiful spirits.” This is reflected in Abraham Lincoln’s quip: “There are no bad pictures; that’s just how your face looks sometimes.”
Through his images, Stanton helps us to recognize this by focusing on each individual subject’s uniqueness. He takes portraits of people just where he finds them. They are not where they may have wanted to be, but where they happened to be. Each photograph is posed, but also not so posed that it seems entirely artificial. To make this confrontation with the face all the more authentic, below each image we find snippets from the conversations that Stanton has had with his subjects. He has listened to each of them, allowed them to voice something of their stories, given them room to breathe and to relax. One of his subjects asks Stanton, “Why should I tell you [anything]?” after being asked what he served time for. “Because it’s your story,” Stanton replies. Yes it is.
But it is also, in a way, Stanton’s story. And soon, in being captivated by the images, it becomes our story. A kid tells us that his hero is his school principal, Ms. Lopez, because even when he goes wrong she’ll call him into her office and tell him that he matters. It is his story, but it is our story too. We all need to have someone to tell us that we fit, that there’s a place for us. And then we hear a casual looking guy confess that he’s not the best communicator and is therefore often “disappointed by what [he] just said.” They’re his words, but they’re also ours. We find ourselves nodding: yes, in life you don’t get to rehearse. This is our experience too. You can almost certainly find something of your life in all of those other lives; in all those faces. Stanton finds them, and we are found in them.
The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argued that the face-to-face relation — the pure confrontation with the face of another human being — is actually the starting point for all ethics. We wander about the world imagining that we are actually the central protagonist in the story of our lives, with everyone cast as an extra in a tale that is really, or so we think, about us. But then, out of the blue, we see the face of another person — really see it, rather than just looking at it — and we are taken aback. We are confronted with the distinctness of people and their almost alarming otherness. They are like us, of course, but also utterly uniquely themselves. The face is the portal to recognition, but for it to be truly recognized it must also be seen in its strangeness. For Levinas, as for Chesterton, we care for others properly in the midst of this paradox of familiarity in unfamiliarity.
Everyone’s story is unfamiliar. We have all, in the words of Martin Heidegger, been “thrown” into the world. Humans of New York (HONY) forces us to examine this “thrownness” — our own and everyone else’s. How much of what we have and who we are is a product of our hard work? And how much is a matter of where we’ve been “thrown”? HONY begs us to ask such questions. Each of Stanton’s subjects comes from a certain neighborhood, a certain family (or lack thereof), a certain gendered or raced body, a certain athletic ability, IQ, EQ, support system, and time in history. The list goes on. But while we are all unprepared for what life will throw at us or throw us into, HONY also shows us that we can still live authentically rather than be simply thrown about by the “untruth” of the “crowd,” as Heidegger calls it. We have this chance, this life, to take a stand on being, to actually care. HONY reminds us that we can adopt a different attitude towards ourselves, one in which I make up my own mind, choose for myself, and am aware of future possibilities for myself and others.
In an interview with Time magazine, Stanton says, “I try not to form these overarching philosophies about what HONY is about.” Instead, he wants to “let [the philosophy] come out organically.” Yet his work discloses endless possibilities for philosophizing. To us, while so much can be said about what HONY represents, it seems obvious that one of its most significant hints towards philosophy is found in its call for empathy. When we see the faces of a heroin addict struggling to be normal, or of a paraplegic struggling to make ends meet, or of a budding astrologer, or neuro-nurse, it’s difficult to not feel any kind of empathy.
In the moment of encounter, Levinas suggests, we may find ourselves given over to the face of the other person, possessed by it. And in the same moment, recognition soon turns into action. We smile and then ask the person in front of us, “Hey, can I help you?” or “Do you need a ride?” Sometimes the face is more demanding: “Pay attention to me, love me, be kind to me.” The face continually speaks, and by putting the words of individuals down below their portraits, Stanton helps us to see this afresh.
It all begins with a few simple words: “Can I take your picture?”
Roberto Sirvent is Associate Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University. His research explores the intersection of ethics, political theory, and theology. He is the author of the book Embracing Vulnerability: Human and Divine (Pickwick, 2014).
Duncan Reyburn is a lecturer at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. His work centers on the intersection of philosophy, theology and visual culture. His contributions can be found in various academic journals and three books, Sacred selves: Essays in Gender, Religion and Popular Culture (Griffel 2012), Looking at Media: An Introduction to Visual Studies (Pearson 2013), Om Te Mag Dink (Aros 2013).