The Rwandan Genocide, Brandon Stanton, and why ‘Humans of New York’ is one of the most important pages on social media right now
‘Do you ever read something and have a very clear vision that there’s so much of life about which you know nothing? Are you ever just smacked in the face with your own ignorance and naivete?’
It’s 8:20pm on April 6, 1994. An aeroplane carrying the President of Rwanda is about to be shot down, over its capital city, Kigali: the catalyst for a mass genocide against the minority Tutsi population, which lead to the slaughter of over one million people in 100 days. That was about 5 years before I was even born – close enough for it to still be a relevant and pertinent historical lesson, right?
Except that in my 19 years (most of which have been spent as a student), I’ve barely heard a single thing about it, a fact which I’m perfectly happy to attribute to my own, overbearing ignorance if it weren’t for a general sense that amongst our generation, remarkably little is known about it. I could tell you a huge amount about the two World Wars, the Vietnam War and the Cold War, all of which started decades before I was even born. And yet I know virtually nothing about this war, whose victims are still undergoing a process of mental recuperation to this day; victims who, for the first time in history, are being given a chance to share their individual experiences of the massacre with a mass audience. And they are being given this opportunity by a social media page with over 18 million Facebook likes: ‘Humans of New York’.
Don’t get me wrong – ‘Humans of New York’ was always just one of those pages on my Facebook newsfeed that I liked way back in 2012, and which I might have a quick flick-through in moments of excessive boredom. It’s always seemed to me to be a form of journalism undermined by repetitiveness and the application of a carefully calculated formula: a photo portrait of a New Yorker, combined with a short caption taken from an interview extract. The page is so successful because each portrait appears to be a window into the soul of a stranger, an opportunity to glimpse into the deeply personal aspects of the lives of others with an unrivalled level of intimacy.
That window into the soul is, however, limited by the frame of the photograph itself, and the judgement of the man behind the camera (Brandon Stanton, a former bond trader). His photographs are often reduced to whatever de-contextualised sentences he chooses to use alongside thee photo. I’ve therefore questioned whether social media really is the right platform for Stanton’s work, given that it defines success by ‘likes’: are his photographs really about providing accessibility into the lives of others, or are they an emotionally manipulative vehicle for the promotion of the success of the page itself? Perhaps that’s why the page always felt a little bit hollow to me.
Until now. It seems to me that the moment ‘Humans of New York’ expanded its outreach from New York to the rest of the world, it suddenly threw off the very constraint which had thus far held it back: a limited viewpoint. Stanton’s decision in 2015 to capture the plight of individual refugees seeking asylum in Europe marked the point at which his page shifted from a point of interest to a point of necessity: for the first time, the increase in donations, support, and awareness of the crisis functioned as testament to the real-world impact he was having. Now, he has arrived at what I consider to be one of his most important projects yet: the dissemination of stories about those ‘who took a moral stand during the [Rwandan] genocide’.
The narratives which Stanton publishes function as the history lesson I never had: informative, troubling, and deeply, deeply humbling. In the background boils the political history of the Rwandan genocide, ultimately a product of the clash between the Rwandan Patriotic Front (dominated by the Tutsi ethnic group), and the government aligned Hutu power extremists, triggered by the RPF’s attempt to overthrow the current government. The result was the mobilisation of anti-Tutsi militias, who enacted a process of ethnic cleansing, on a level unseen since the Holocaust.
But foregrounded are the individuals who lived, breathed, and bled to combat the genocide: individuals who watched the brutal murder of their family members, who were hunted themselves, and who have seen the darkest side of humanity there is to offer. Perhaps what Stanton does most cleverly is, rather than describing the history of the genocide to us, he offers up these individual accounts, and forces us to research the rest ourselves. This is history in its purest form: a plurality of first-hand narratives creates a general sense of the atrocity of the war, rather than channelling a conventional, overarching narrative. One victim tells the tale of how he heard about the demise of his mother: “she was randomly chosen for death and shot in the head at 10 AM. She lived until 5 pm. But by the time I heard this, I couldn’t even cry. I was completely numb. I was just waiting to die myself”.
I won’t attempt to summarise, or even quote from any other accounts because to do so is to reductively devalue their narrative power. Instead, I implore you to please, please read them as they are presented on the ‘Humans of New York page’. The page is doing so much more than giving a voice to the previously voiceless; it is challenging the conventional news channels and accepted narratives of history. By moving away from Western news perspectives, and using the victims of the war as a platform to explore the historical intricacies, Stanton’s page acknowledges that there are countless narratives outside of the Western world, each of which merit equal media coverage.
Ultimately, Rwanda received minimal international help in 1994. The whole war might have been stopped had the UN interfered earlier and chosen to strengthen the mandate of the Assistance Mission for Rwanda. Viewed in light of its colonial history (in which the colonising Belgium turned the traditional Hutu-Tutsi relationship into a privileged class system leading to a build up of resentment), this inaction is even more galling. But worse, in my opinion, is the minimal international spotlight which the genocide itself received in the aftermath of the event. And now, for the first time, said atrocities are being brought to the foreground of Western attention (ironically, by a Western media site no less), but in a way which emphasises the resilience, bravery and strength of its victims. If you feel shocked, horrified, and ignorant when you read it, good; just whatever happens, make sure you do read it.
Visit the Humans of New York page here.