Humans of New York as Photographic Performative Documentary

I don’t know about anyone else, but after our discussion in class today and looking over the text on performative documentary once more, I can’t help but think of the popular site Humans of New York. Performative documentary seeks to showcase the subjectivity and emotion that certain individuals or groups feel. While I haven’t seen Paris is Burning, I can gather from what was said in class that the purpose of the documentary was to shed light onto an otherwise marginalized group of people (cross-dressers living in New York). I think this desire to highlight individuals and their unique experiences is at the heart of performative documentary. In the article, Nichols writes: “though sharing the preference for the local, the concrete, and the evocative, performative documentary also generally insists on the dialectical relationship between precisely this kind of richly and fully evoked specificity and overarching conceptual categories such as exile, racism, sexism, or homophobia.” What is so special and different about performative documentary is the desire to shed light on otherwise marginalized groups that do not necessarily fit into the “master narrative” of history. Furthermore, this style of documentary comes at a time when technology is more readily accessible to the masses. In the 1980s and 1990s, people could start affording cameras and using them; at this moment in time, there was less of a reliance on those who dictate the master narrative to also produce the films that reinforce the master narrative.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call the work that Humans of New York produces performative documentary in and of itself; I’m sure there are problems there in terms of the different theories behind photographs vs. films. However, I do see a lot of parallels between the two. Both possess a desire to showcase marginalized groups and give a glimpse into their subjectivity. Overall, HONY gives a smaller look into the subjectivity of those photographed. But, at its strongest, the captions of the photos have emotional stories of one’s past or one’s aspirations. HONY seems to, in part, seek to challenge the master picture (or narrative) that people have of New York and instead demonstrate how diverse New York actually is.

Also similarly to performative documentary, as was mentioned in class, the subjectivity lies in both what is being presented and how a viewer interprets the images. Certainly looking at the comments on images, one can see how the viewer is given the freedom to draw their own conclusions on the stories presented before them. We as the viewers are not usually shown the question that the person I asked, nor are we always shown everything they say; sometimes we are only given a line or two from the subject of the photo, and are left to draw our own conclusions about what they mean. Like performative documentaries, this can lead to multiple interpretations given our own perspectives and biases.

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