Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind Humans of New York, is doing some incredible work that cuts stereotypes to shreds and reveals the innate qualities that make us all human. We see this again and again in his photos, but his collaboration with the United Nations was particularly striking.
“We don’t like pictures like this. It is not good to deduce an entire country to the image of a person reaching out for food. It is not good for people to see us like this, and it is not good for us to see ourselves like this. This gives us no dignity. We don’t want to be shown as a country of people waiting for someone to bring us food. Congo has an incredible amount of farmland. An incredible amount of resources. Yes, we have a lot of problems. But food is not what we are reaching for. We need investment. We need the means to develop ourselves.” (Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo)
“When I got accepted into the Master’s program at the University of Damascus, it felt like the whole world was in my hands. For the last three weeks before the exam, I studied for 20 hours every day. My eyes got so tired and swollen that I could not see the letters anymore. So when I heard that I passed, I felt that nothing was impossible. All my friends and family were surrounding me and kissing me.”
“How did you celebrate?” “Well, we were poor. So I bought a Pepsi to share with my friends.”
She said she wanted to be a pilot, and when I asked why, she spoke two words. My translator said:
“She says, something like: ‘I want to be able to control myself in the air.'”
“But what exactly did she say?” I asked.
“‘Kuar Nhial,’ he answered. ‘It means: ‘I’ll be the leader of the air.'”
(Tongping Internally Displaced Persons Site, Juba, South Sudan)
This also reminds us of the lesson from Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, who in her TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story”, shared a realization she had shortly after starting university in the United States.
“[My college roommate] asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music,’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove. What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity.
My roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way. No possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals.”
Such disempowering narratives affect people from all over the world who are seen as nothing more than their wars, their dictators, their disasters. Their problems.
This is one of the reasons we place so much importance in changing the narrative on North Korea. Imagine for a moment that you’re North Korean: You escaped and have been living in freedom for a while. When you flip on the television or log into your social network,
how would you feel to have your entire people’s identity, history, and potential reduced to a leader who you didn’t vote for and his collection of nuclear weapons?
It’s ridiculous. This common perception creates a barrier to progress and change. It’s like when people were taught that the world was flat, making sailors afraid to sail too far. When we see North Korea through this traditional lens, we see it as an impossible problem and we don’t engage it. It makes us fearful and closed off from the greatest hope for change — the people.
Up until relatively recently in human history, we thought the sun revolved around the earth. We thought we were the center of the universe. When we started putting satellites into space, we could SEE the reality of our world as a pale blue dot in a vast cosmic arena, and it changed our perspective. Right now, many in the outside world do not feel that North Koreans are a part of our global community because of the way we see them—victims, walled off from the rest of humanity.
Imagine what we could accomplish if humans around the globe got to SEE the people not just facing incredible challenges but overcoming them, and the humanity and strength that exists within North Korea even in the face of a ruthless system of oppression.