It’s pretty safe to say that every one of the nearly 3 million people who follow Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York photography series has, at one point or another, wondered what it would be like to be featured in a post – to be stopped randomly on the street, photographed and interviewed.
What would the encounter be like? How many questions would be asked, and how would you reply? Candid or coy? Funny or serious? How would people react when the post went online, and how would it feel to be “liked” by a few thousand, or even a few hundred thousand, people in a matter of minutes?
Patrick Dougher found out on January 25, when a photo Brandon had taken of him one week earlier went live on the Humans of New York Facebook page and other social media outlets. It featured him standing with his bicycle on a Brooklyn street, and was accompanied by a quote that read, “My dad was just a working class Irish dude. He drank himself to death when I was fifteen, but he was a good dad when he was sober. I remember him taking me to a gay wedding on Christopher Street to teach me tolerance. And that was back in 1971.”
The responses (the photo now has over 123,000 “likes” and over 4,500 comments on Facebook alone) varied from admiration over his father’s lesson in tolerance, to recognition of a parent’s struggle with alcoholism, to some questioning about how he could be black and of Irish heritage. Eventually, Patrick himself responded:
“Just to bring some clarity and light to this comment stream (and I am grateful for all)... My dad was 1st generation Irish-American.. He was "black Irish" in that he was a white man with black hair and dark eyes.. My mom is African-American... They met in Bed-Stuy in the early 60's... I am the product of their union...it is very appropriate that my photo was posted on MLK day... I was a child of the civil rights movement and I was taught to 'never judge others by their race, religion or sexual orientation but by the quality of their character' I have passed this teaching to my son..Peace[.]”
IrishCentral had the chance to learn a bit more about Patrick’s story and what it was like for him to be a “Human of New York.” A native New Yorker and Brooklynite, Patrick is an artist and musician and works as the Program Director of Groundswell, the Brookyln-based arts non-profit that brings together local artists and teens interested in art to create impactful murals across the city – particularly in neighborhoods that are rarely selected for public art projects. He’s also currently working on rehabbing a brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, right near where his parents met in the ‘60s, which just goes to show how everything can come full circle.
How did the encounter with Brandon take place?
I was on Fulton Street by Franklin Avenue. It was in the early afternoon – I was actually about to go to a vegetable market that I like by there. It was kind of rainy and quiet, and this really tall white guy came running across the street saying “Hey! Can I take your picture?” At first I was like “Whoa…” but then he explained who he was, and about his blog, which I had heard about, so I said sure. We went over to a side street, and that’s where he took the picture, in the middle of the street. The whole interaction was five minutes maybe.
How did you come to talk about your father? Did you have any hesitation about being so open?
No, not at all, I’m a pretty open book. He asked a few really interesting questions, but I think it was one about diversity and the city that led us to talk about my dad and wedding. It was an interesting experience – I think I was about seven or eight at the time, and it was the wedding of a close friend of my mom and dad. What also made it special was that my dad was taking me out, it was our day.
What’s amazing is, when I told my mom about all of this she said she’d been thinking about my dad a lot recently. And I didn’t think about it till then, but January 17 is also the day my dad died – January 17, 1980. There are no coincidences.
Patrick Francis Dougher (bottom right) with his dad Ambrose "Frank" Francis Dougher, mom Anne Lee Gerald Dougher, older brother Darik Dougher, and aunt Christine Dougher on the day of his First Communion.
What was your parents’ story?
They were really young when they met. My dad was 18, and my mom I think she was 20. They met on kind of a blind date that two of their friends set up. Back in the ’60s Bed-Stuy was still a mixed neighborhood, there were a lot of Irish working class folks there – my father actually went to Boys and Girls High. So that’s how they met. They dated for a while and then got married. We lived in Bushwick first, and then we moved to Flatbush. They got along well, they were really in love. My father was great, he had a really mischievous sense of humor. His drinking became a problem in the relationship later, but they were still in love. He died a very long time ago now, but my mom still talks about him and he’s alive in the family in spirit.
What was it like to see your photo online and then see the reactions to it?
After Brandon took the photo I kind of forgot about it. I was pretty busy the day it went online, but some of my friends saw it and that’s actually how I found out about it – people started texting me saying “Hey! I saw you on HONY!” They were really surprised and excited about it.
What was also a surprise was the way people reacted – some of the comments that initially came out of it questioning my ethnicity, saying that I was adopted or that my father couldn’t be white. But it was also really kind of heartening to see that the majority of the comments weren’t ignorant; there were a lot of great ones. I hadn’t realized that one sentence was so packed – there was the addiction thing, there was the racial thing, and then there was the sexual orientation thing all in one.
What prompted you to write the response?
Well, I started reading some of the comments and realized that it seemed like I could add some information to clarify that my father was in fact my biological father – I thought it was important that that was understood.
What did you take away from the whole experience?
I’m just really grateful I can keep my dad’s memory alive. He was a hardworking guy. We never had a whole lot of money, but I feel like he’s kind of an unsung hero in that both he and my mom, they were young, kind of poor folks but they fell in love despite the fact that my father came from a big family and some of them were kind of racist, and my mom’s family, they didn’t feel like he was good enough for her to be with. They were able to build a family despite that, and I think that’s worth being told.
You asked me if I had any reservations about speaking openly, and I don’t. I just feel like if people were more courageous about talking about their family stuff, even the darker things, it would be helpful. If anything good came out of me being so open, it’s that it promoted conversation. A lot of what came forth in the comments was people identifying, saying that their fathers also drank a lot, etc. The identification that comes when people are honest is such an important thing.
Patrick Dougher with his dad, Frank, in their Bushwick, Brooklyn apartment c. 1970, right around the time they went to the wedding on Christopher Street.