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How Humans of New York Inspired an Artistic Movement

Who has influenced you the most in your life? A few months ago, I learned about a story in a popular photo blog called Humans of New York. HONY won my heart a little over a year ago just by the simple yet compelling portraits of people and the hearty fragments of their story. The honest questions and raw answers magnetized me. I’d scroll through and read story after story, each one bringing me a little bit closer to my own humanity.

 A friend tagged me in a post that eventually became a national story. This was the story of a boy named Vidal and the principal at his school. Brandon Stanton, who runs the blog, approached Vidal on the street. And while taking his portrait, he started asking Vidal questions: “Who has influenced you the most in your life?”

He responded, “My principal, Ms. Lopez.”

“How has she influenced you?”

“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

What does this moment tell us about Ms. Lopez? It reveals her true essence, she’s much more than a principal. She’s an artist. That’s right, an artist. She doesn’t sing, dance or act. She doesn’t draw, paint (conventionally) or write poetry. She takes seemingly quotidian moments and seemingly run-of-the-mill kids, and she does all that she can to turn water into wine. That’s what artists do. They create beauty. They create moments of transcendence. They serenade our soul. They draw out the best in us.

I’m from a rough part of Chicago: Humboldt Park. Ms. Lopez is vastly different from what I experienced as a little guy growing up. When I was younger we had Sister Betty Smigla as our principal. One day, she called a meeting with all the 8th graders on the verge of moving onto high school. We were all a little frightened of Sister Betty.

We weren’t quite sure why she was rounding us up, maybe she wanted to give us a little “pep talk,” or was it a gift? We were all wrong. Sister Betty decided to give us a dose of reality. She started with the young women in our class, and told them they would end up pregnant dropouts. The young men were told we’d end up in jail, part of a gang or dead. One by one, she told us all the ways we would fail and never in the conversation was there a moment when we were told that we mattered.

Looking back on that moment, I realize something about what it means to be an artist. When an artist sits down and stares at a blank canvas, they don’t just sit and point out the reality of what’s in front of them. They don’t just call out what they see, cotton linen, stretched across wooden boards, stapled, plain. They don’t tell the canvas that there are millions of canvases just like it and that there is nothing special about that canvas.

That’s not what artists do. Artists pick up a paintbrush and see the possibilities in this simple thing. In that moment, it might have many missing pieces, but it has space for a masterpiece. The man who created Humans of New York was unemployed when he started that blog. Not only that but, he wasn’t a good photographer. He had two weeks of experience taking pictures, but he set out to take 10,000 portraits. He set out to walk through the streets of New York, where people are notoriously not nice, and ventured into a broken world, a broken city, in his broken situation. Though he could see all the things that were missing, he tried to create something beautiful.

Because of what Brandon set out to do, the school that Vidal attends has raised well over a million dollars. With this money, students at Ms. Lopez’s school will have new opportunities and resources like new computers to research on and visits to storied academic institutions like Harvard University.

An artist looks at a blank canvas and sees the Mona Lisa. An artist looks at unemployment and sees Humans of New York. An artist looks at Vidal and sees a Nobel Peace Prize winner. That’s the mind of an artist.

Do you feel the pressure of the world around you? Do you feel overwhelmed by the humdrum of everyday life – the boring, the mundane, the family baggage, the pressure at work? What if we could take that broken, tattered, messed-up situation and create a masterpiece? Whether that magnum opus is what you can do in the lives of the people around you or just in your own soul; create art. Be a source of beauty.

Pick up the paint brush. Be someone who takes everyday ordinary situations and paints something extraordinary. Take the mundane and color something meaningful. Take the broken and mold something beautiful. Be an artist.

By Johan Khalilian