On a recent trip to New York, I took my relatives to Times Square, where we were bombarded with images of M&Ms, perfumes, designer goods, and towering far above it all: a massive for billboard for Brandon Stanton’s book “Humans of New York: Stories”. Adapted from the popular blog Humans of New York (or HONY), the book debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list in October, reflecting the incredible popularity of Stanton’s work, which presents portraits of New Yorkers (and more recently, subjects further afield in Pakistan, Iran, and India) accompanied by vignettes from their lives.
The enormous success of the book, and the blog before it, signals the mass appeal of storytelling in contemporary culture. This is encouraging insofar as it indicates more and more people are interested in exploring and sharing the lives of others, from people you might sit next to on the New York subway, to individuals with different lives altogether in rural Pakistan.
Yet there is a danger in storytelling when it attempts to compress too much meaning into too little space. In his article “Humans of New York and the Cavalier Consumption of Others”, Vinson Cunningham laments that:
“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.”
At Tell History, we do not provide personal portraits. We present a mosaic of individual experiences that build something much larger than any one person: a collective history. There is no polished photography, no bust of pathos. The image, the voice, and the personality of the storyteller is an integral part of the story, but above all each entry is a testimony to an experience, a time and place as lived by the person who recounts it. After all, a five minute video cannot possibly begin to capture the full depth of any individual. But it can reflect a distinct memory important to that person, and invite someone else to share their perspective.
Looking out from a story, not just looking in
Our aim is to empower the person sharing their experience, so that they–not the blogger, not the photographer–are the storyteller.
Viewers can learn a lot from each story, and a constellation of stories will build a better understanding of history. Friends, family, and strangers all benefit in the watching of our stories. But much of the reward goes to the storytellers who reawaken and preserve memories, and to the person who decided this was an important story that needed to be preserved and shared. Where portraiture is an artist looking in from the outside, Tell History allows these individuals to speak for themselves, and frame their own story. Their personality and values may not be immediately apparent on the surface, but they are embedded deeply within each story and the decision to record it.
We strongly believe that this is the strength of our non-curated approach to storytelling: we let you decide what history needs to remember. We don’t take you out of context, because at Tell History you make the context.
People are endlessly complex. Rather than try to explain you ourselves, squeezing a life’s journey into photos and soundbites, we give you the space to share the experiences that shaped your life–because ultimately only you can provide the clues to your own mystery.