Brandon Stanton likes a lot of things—cats, dogs, children, grown-ups.
And with his photographs taken around New York, collected in the book, Humans of New York (St. Martin’s, October), he captures them all, along with the spirit and nature of the city, its diversity and craziness and chaos and even its quiet.
Tall, handsome, and rugged, Stanton grew up in Atlanta with his parents and older brother. He studied history at the University of Georgia and he says, “fell into” a job as a bond trader in Chicago. A friend who was working as a trader suggested Stanton work with him. This same confidence that led Stanton to become a bond trader led him to set out on a photo tour of several major American cities after he lost his job. He had begun taking photographs on weekends, in 2010, after buying his first camera ever with $3000 he won in a football pool, and fell in love. While he says he also loved his trading job, “when I finally lost it, it was a huge sense of relief—for three years all I thought about was money—and now I could think about whatever I wanted.”
What he wanted to think about, and do full time, was photography. “I’ve always felt like an artistic person,” Stanton explains. “I can’t draw, or paint, or sculpt. I never really had technical skills, but I’ve always felt like I appreciate really beautiful things and part of taking a good photograph is being able to recognize beauty.”
Stanton began traveling, stopping in cities like Pittsburg, and Philadelphia, taking photos of anything and everything he found interesting: buildings, bridges, and depositing them in a Facebook album. He started taking more and more photos of people, and started to move beyond candid shots, stopping strangers on the street and talking to them. “I noticed that the best feedback that I got was from photos of people, especially when I stopped and asked them questions, having an intimate moment with a stranger.”
By the time he reached New York City, he says, he was only photographing people: “…the mass of people [here] is like nowhere else. It was like I landed in the perfect place to do the kind of photography that I wanted to do.”
Clearly, what Stanton does takes courage, nerve and perseverance, all qualities he seems to possess, and which have contributed to his success. Approaching strangers, especially in New York City, is daunting, but Stanton does it, and he does it well. His photos show NYC as a mysterious, sometimes ominous place that’s extremely difficult to define or pin down.
Stanton arrived in New York in August, 2010, intending to stay for a week—he ended up spending the rest of the summer. He created an album on Facebook for his photos, and titled it “Humans of New York.” By the end of August, Stanton had taken more than 600 portraits. He decided to make the jump, went back to Chicago, packed his things, and returned to NYC in November for good. He had been posting the photos on his personal account, but at the suggestion of a friend, created a Facebook page dedicated solely to “Humans of New York.”
His decision to tap into social media proved to be a good one. Slowly, Stanton’s work began to attract attention, and in a little over a year, he had half a million fans. “Social media is the audience. I now have Tumblr, Instagram, and Facebook.” Asked how he supports himself, Stanton says that “I just did a pretty big commercial shoot for Amtrak, but I keep it all separate from HONY.” This first book, Humans of New York, is the result of almost three years of work, and he has two more book deals, one of children’s portraits, subjects he particularly enjoys photographing.
Stanton’s work began to morph early on: “It was an evolution. My blog isn’t really a photography blog anymore, it’s a storytelling blog. I think that’s its mark on the world.” He asks his subjects questions like, “tell me your saddest moment, your happiest moment.” He says that “at the beginning I thought I had to find the right words but I realized it’s not about what you say, it’s the energy, so now I keep it as simple as possible.”
Stanton has good energy; he’s enthusiastic, and positive, and estimates that about 30% of the people he approaches and asks to photograph say “no.” And he admits, “some say ‘no’ very sharply.” Asked if he gets nervous, he says that “At first, yes, I got very nervous. But I don’t anymore. I got to where I am out of sheer resilience, after approaching thousands of people. But it does take some sort of emotional fortitude to do this.” His goal is to leave an interview with a story that only that person can tell, and he continues to ask questions until he gets a story “that the person can own.”
He’s found continuities among his subjects: “I think everyone feels alone in their sadness and there’s a certain value to hearing other people’s sad stories.” Although many of Stanton’s photos evoke sadness, they’re also uplifting and exhilarating at the same time. His ability lies in capturing people in their natural state. “Some stories are hilarious, some are sad,” he says. “I don’t have a favorite.”
Stanton pounds the pavement every day. “I try not to take days off,” he says, “it’s an emotional thing.” He looks for people who can talk freely, often people who are alone, rarely taking people out of groups because “people protect themselves, and don’t like to talk in front of their friends.” He lives in Bedford Stuyvesant, the first neighborhood he ever saw in New York, and loves working there as well. New York in general excites him because “there’s so much diversity, and it’s like a bunch of little worlds.” He travels all over the city and says he feels that the city in general is very open.
When he’s not working, Stanton likes reading biographies, “I don’t think there’s any better education than learning the intimate details of the lives of people who you most admire,” he says. He also spends time with his girlfriend, and his dog. And he’s trying to learn to speak Spanish.
“As an artist in the 21st century,” he says, “my two goals are to make the best work that I can, improve as much as I can, and to distribute that work as far as I can.” He says he uses Facebook as a content producer, and his own personal account is very quiet. “I’m at an interesting point where my audience is so large that certain considerations go into it, something more anonymous photographers don’t have to think about.” He says he gets stopped “quite a bit” by people who follow his blog, and often ask to take his picture, a request with which he always complies. “It’s great to meet these people” he says, “It’s what I enjoy doing.” The rapid growth of the project is interesting to Stanton. “When you’re growing really fast, you always ask questions: ‘what’s it going to be like?’ The bigger it gets, the more I try to focus on the photography.”
He has, on multiple occasions, used his popularity and visibility to do charity work. He raised money for Hurricane Sandy victims, and raised money for a little boy with dreams of owning a horse. “We sent him to a dude ranch instead…” explains Stanton. All of his fundraising efforts “emerged organically from HONY,” says Stanton, who is careful about asking his audience for money. What intrigues Stanton is the honesty of the subject, not just the photo.
Humans of New York, the book, is doing amazingly well. Stanton now has 1.4 million Facebook fans. But he never forgets that when he first arrived in New York “I didn’t know a soul, I was here for a year, working everyday, it was lonely.”