Last week’s New Yorker had a thought-provoking article about how we produce and consume media including media about kids and schools. Titled Humans of New York and the Cavalier Consumption of Others, the article focuses on the well-known photo from HONY (now a book as well as a website, etc.) of a boy named Vidal, who attends Mott Hall Bridges Academy, in Brownsville, run by Nadia Lopez, and whose appearance on Facebook led to a White House visit, a crowdfunding campaign.
Just the description of the picture might make you think a bit more about it than you did when you first saw it online:
“Beneath the jacket is a fleece-lined hoodie, also black, and in his hand the boy holds a black plastic bag, stretched by the weight of what might be groceries. The sidewalk behind him is cracked and dotted with litter. Dull-brown public-housing towers—as much a part of the quintessential visual New York as the bodega bag—form a jagged horizon.”
The critique of HONY — and TED Talks, and The Moth — might make you bristle:
“A story has lately become a glossier, less thrilling thing: a burst of pathos, a revelation without a veil to pull away. “Storytelling,” in this parlance, is best employed in the service of illuminating business principles, or selling tickets to non-profit galas, or winning contests.”
The New Yorker piece urges us to do the impossible and forget the story, focusing back on the image:
“Forget, for a moment, the factual details that we have gathered in the course of knowing-but-not-really-knowing him… Consider, instead, the ease of the boy’s sneakers against the sidewalk; his shy, smirking confidence; the preternatural calm with which he occupies the space within the frame. Viewed like this—as, yes, irrefutably real, but also as a readable image—he is reminiscent of Gordon Parks’s squinting Harlem newsboy. Both convey something almost spiritual: something about the delicate string that hangs between youth and resilience, about the miraculous talent of children, however voiceless, to stand unswallowed by the city.”
Whether you agree or disagree with the point — and the rest of the essay’s reflection on images in politics and society — it’s helpful I think to remember that stories and images can overtake us if we let them, and that sometimes we need to step back from the narrative we’re constructing and look at the individual parts.