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Brandon Stanton, the founder of the award-winning street photography project Humans of New York, has a story to tell about one of his subjects, an elderly woman whose picture he took at Columbus Circle. Stanton’s looking at the photo on his laptop: a close-up of the lady’s face framed by short wisps of white hair falling from under a fuzzy cap, the blurred dome of a colorful umbrella behind her. “This is the first time that somebody … actually made me cry on the street,” he begins. “First of all, I just saw her and she had this bright umbrella … I said, ‘If you were to give a piece of advice what would it be?’ And she said, ‘I’ll tell you what my husband told me, when he was dying. I said, “Moe, you know, how am I gonna live without you?” and he said, ‘Take the love you have for me and spread it around’ — and she was just so earnest and serious … it was just so touching.” Stanton’s face scrunches into a thoughtful smile. “Isn’t she wonderful?”
Stanton has been approaching people on the street to take their photographs since 2010, when he moved to New York City from Chicago after losing his job there as a bond trader on the Chicago Board of Trade. He doesn’t like to talk about this, but whatever the reason for his dismissal, we know from his website that “it went really bad”; he also issues a link to this face-palm photo to illustrate the point. Now, in New York, Stanton engages his passion for photography full time. “HONY wasn’t really the result of a master plan that formulated, then realized,” Stanton shrugged. However, in the three years since he began HONY, the project has, to put it mildly, taken off. With an ever increasing online following — the HONY Facebook page currently has 1.4 million likes — as well as today’s release of a Humans of New York photography book published by St. Martin’s Press, it’s an especially crucial time. Stanton remains fairly grounded, though; he seems genuinely astonished by HONY’s burgeoning success. And though he’s still fascinated by how well his photos are received, he can’t afford to waste too much of his time fussing over comments on Facebook; he has work to do, more pictures to take. He’s a businessman in a baseball cap.
But where profit fuels a business, it’s unclear what else — other than Stanton’s passion, and the publicity it’s accrued online — is driving HONY forward. In the project’s early days, when Stanton “had like 100,000 Facebook fans” (a still substantial but smaller following), he had a print sale that yielded “a decent amount of money,” enough to live off for a time. Of course, that money’s “all gone now,” and Stanton seems somewhat reluctant to talk about the economics of the project. Though it’s uncertain how HONY sustains itself financially — as a project that has, up until today’s book release, been predominately online — it is an undoubtedly thriving enterprise. Stanton has the air of an amateur entrepreneur who’s figuring things out as he goes along. Yet he’s aware of how much work is required “just to handle the [project’s] growth” — he mentions having recently hired a couple of assistants to help with the administrative side of things. There’s “stuff like this,” he says, tapping me on the arm with a flourish, “speeches, getting the book ready, business stuff, just all kinds of stuff.”
Awards make up some of that stuff, too. Among its accolades, HONY received the Webby Award for Best Use of Photography as well as the People’s Voice Award for Best Cultural Blog and another for Best Use of Photography. And yet Stanton, who studied history at the University of Georgia, isn’t professionally trained as a photographer. “I’m extremely insulated,” he says. “I’ve never taken a class, I’ve never really gone out really shooting with anybody. I’ve spent all my time on the street alone with my camera; that’s how I’ve developed the aesthetic that I have. I think I can improve a lot,” he admits, though he says “it would kind of be embarrassing to go to classes now because my audience is so big. I’d be wearing a bag over my head.” His interest in photography was “organically sprung,” he says, starting out as a hobby, just “this street photography that I’m doing for fun on the weekends.” Soon enough, he “would just go out and photograph everything.”
For all its success as street photography, HONY has gained its utmost acclaim for its increasingly philanthropic role in the New York community and beyond. In the wake of April’s Boston bombings, Stanton demonstrated his support for the city by making an honorary trip, taking photos of Bostonians to garner hope there. And in New York, following a controversy involving DKNY this February, when the fashion house used some of Stanton’s images to decorate the window of their Bangkok store without his permission (it was brought to his attention by a photo sent in by a fan), Stanton turned a cause for a copyright infringement lawsuit into an opportunity to send the kids of Bed-Stuy’s YMCA to summer camp. To do that, he raised over $100,000 from his fan base via a fundraising site online, including a $15,000 share from DKNY, after publicly urging the company to donate. The “Humans of New York Community” was subsequently honored this April at City Hall, receiving a proclamation for its contributions to the Bed-Stuy YMCA.
When he talks about teaming up with Tumblr to raise $85,000 for the Sandy relief effort — photographing images of the city in the storm’s aftermath, and selling prints, tote bags, and stickers — Stanton lights up like a kid who’s surprised to have been invited to hang out with the popular crowd. “I love the Tumblr people,” Stanton says. “One of the things that gives me pride, I guess, is that those people are my friends.” Getting to “just go over there and hang out and talk to everybody” gives Stanton what he calls a “’wow, this is so neat, making it’ feeling.” And Stanton was named the founder of the organization’s favorite Tumblr blog, an acknowledgement he recalls with a big, elated smile. “Yeah! Wasn’t that so cool? I know! I was really happy that night.” He’s gushing.
Originally from Atlanta, the 29-year-old photographer now lives in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, where he shares a modest walk-up in an old brownstone building with a roommate and his dog, Susie, an excitable, curly-haired Chihuahua that jumps a lot whenever there’s unfamiliar company. In a gray T-shirt and jeans, with blond-brown hair in a freshly wet mop and an ebullient, toothy grin, Stanton — who’s impressively tall — looks like a regular, sports-addicted American guy you’d meet in an Upper West Side bar. At home, Stanton sits comfortably with his feet up on the coffee table while beside him on the navy couch, like a spare limb, rests his Canon EOS 7D, which he carries around with him everywhere. He’s gotten to know the city through that lens.
Remembering his early days in New York — generally the most stressful, soul-sapping time for new New Yorkers — Stanton’s voice drops into a low, faltering tone, and his eyes absently land somewhere in the space of the room. “The first year was really hard,” he says with a breath. “I didn’t know anybody in New York. I was broke as hell, OK? I was living in a $625-a-month room, and nobody thought this was a good idea — everybody thought I was crazy.” Later, however, Stanton tells me, “All my best stuff, all my best ideas ever, have been stuff everybody’s been telling me not to do,” and evidently this was one of them. “I was photographing all day, every day. I photographed on Christmas Eve, Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve … and I was alone on all those holidays. My entire relationship with New York has been with HONY.”
But when Stanton mentions New York now, it’s with a casual command that suggests he’s grown accustomed to the city, or at least made peace with it in some way. He talks me through some of his process. “There’s this one lap I take through the Village that I’ve taken a thousand times, and I always get six unique pictures out of it,” he says merrily. He’ll “start at Washington Square, walk up Fifth Avenue to Union Square, take a lap around Union, maaaybe walk up to Madison Square and then back-down, a little bit into the East Village, up-down, Second and Third, come-back, then I can either go back to Washington Square and get on the subway, or I can go down Broadway and cut through SoHo.” When Stanton speaks, he turns corners at each new thought like it’s a cross street. He’s barely finished a sentence before he embarks upon another. I imagine his brain operates somewhat like Manhattan’s grid system, a meticulously ordered chaos. “Everybody’s telling me to go somewhere new, don’t tire out your audience,” Stanton says. But for now, he’ll stay in New York: “It’s the same location, but it’s completely different.”
As he seems to have more of a handle on the city, he’s become more creative with his photography. “I think you can see me more in something like this,” Stanton says, showing me a photo of two sisters standing between columns of colorful crates, stacked neatly to frame his subjects. “Because of the amount of thought that went into it,” he explains. “Those crates weren’t like that; it took a while to set everything up. I build scenes when I have the person’s permission.” Stanton’s clearly most proud of this kind of staged work. “Every photo that I take is more or less a collaboration, because each one is the result of an interaction,” he says of his subjects. “This isn’t candid documentary photography.” Rather, he sees photographs as “scenes that I’m constructing.” And he’s just as aware of the way things are presented outside the camera frame, as he opens a sentence with, “I don’t know if this will fit well into the article, but … ” — a photographer to his core, Stanton’s concerned with his appearance.
Words are just as important to him. Often, when Stanton takes a subject’s photograph, he asks a question in an effort to open them up in front of the camera — to yield a story, anecdote, or nugget of wisdom that in part serves the character of the person, and sometimes translates to their image, but mostly to use as an illuminating caption to accompany a subject’s photo. Though he endeavors to capture the personality of his subjects not just on camera but through their words, Stanton rarely asks for a subject’s name. Photography’s an intimate act, but in the transaction between photographer and subject, he’s mindful to retain a careful distance. To look at his pictures is something akin to the experience of New York itself: his photos focus on the individual, but always at a certain remove.
The photographer has a similar relationship to his audience, whom he keeps in touch with from another distance, mainly through Facebook. Throughout our interview, Stanton — an unruffled workaholic — is casually monitoring the “likes” on a photo he’s just posted to Facebook. The photograph, which shows an old, bearded man sitting on a stoop, is unexceptional, but the caption with it — “Do you mind if I take your photo?” / “…” / “I run a website called … ” / “Don’t give me that shit line. Just take the picture.” — lends it a humanity and wry humor. As Stanton readily admits, the man in the photo is “an interesting guy, but as far as photographic technique or artistry, there’s not anything that compelling about it. Yet it’s got … ” — he scrolls to the top of the page to check his notifications — “3,000 likes in ten minutes.” Stories and “likes” matter to Stanton; the words not only make the pictures, but also generate the online engagement he craves.
For all his solitude, the city enables Stanton to interact with thousands of people — to take their photos, talk to them, listen to their stories — but he doesn’t get too close. New York’s an excessive place, but with his camera, Stanton can handle it; when he wants to, he can zoom in, and when he doesn’t want to, he can flip the shutter. He’s kind of a sociable hermit. If, as E. B. White wrote of the city in Here Is New York, “every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul,” then Stanton chooses each spectacle with every click of his Canon’s shutter. Navigating the city, using his camera as a crutch, Stanton’s accepted that “the world’s not as scary as people think.”
HONY “really goes a long way to soften and humanize the city of New York,” Stanton says. “I grew up in Atlanta; all I knew of New York was that the Yankees trashed us in the World Series every year. It seemed like this big, scary, intimidating place that’s in a lot of crime movies,” and so, he says, he was attracted to New York as a place that was “feared … misunderstood.”
Yet for Stanton, who wants to establish more of a global audience, HONY isn’t just for New Yorkers. Just as he’s sympathetic to New York, Stanton seeks out other “places that are feared, and places that are misunderstood” — which is why, he says, he chose to travel to Tehran last year, where he photographed Tehranians in the way he has photographed New Yorkers. It’s a trip Stanton’s evidently proud of, though he’s still dumbfounded by his audience’s reaction — or rather, lack of reaction — to it. “Let me show you something,” he says, opening another tab on his laptop. “I’ll tell ya, it was really the opposite of what I thought … See, I went to Iran thinking my American audience would find it incredibly interesting.” They didn’t. And yet, though the number of viewers was trickling in the US, “when I got over there,” Stanton said almost in a careful whisper, “there was an equally exciting and unexpected phenomenon … the thing blew up in Iran.” His eyes were piercing the screen. I followed Stanton’s eyes and found the statistic they were fixed upon: 19,813, the number of HONY followers in Iran. “And Facebook is banned in Iran,” Stanton points out proudly. “Tehran is after New York as the most popular city that follows my page,” he says as though realizing the fact for the first time.
One gets the impression that Stanton’s discovering everything afresh as he goes along, which is also precisely what he’s doing with HONY. Towards the end of the interview, Stanton scoops his laptop onto his lap and announces: “Let me show you something! Here’s my desktop. Here’s a little glimpse into my mind.” He’s pointing to a screen cluttered with messy clusters of thumbnail photos, but when he looks at it, he seems displeased; something isn’t right. “This actually kinda scares me,” he admits, distracted. “Hmm, there’s a lot of photos missing from my desktop,” he says flatly. He goes blank for a moment as he rummages through several Finder compartments. After this pause — which is, in real time, under a minute, but feels like ten — Stanton heaves a sigh and finally speaks. “That was scary for a second, sorry!” he laughs, finding the months of work he thought he’d lost. And it was scary. Misplacing work is frustrating for any artist, but one supposes that for Stanton, to lose that work would not only be to lose other people’s stories, but with them, a part of his own.
Stanton’s photography relies more upon this process of discovery — of being perpetually lost and found again, of blinking the shutter to store a fleeting moment in a lasting capsule — than it functions as an ongoing series of finished prints. Nothing feels final, as such; everything’s unfinished, unedited. For Stanton, HONY is about finding his way through the city streets by getting lost in them. With his Canon at his fingertips, the photographer can untangle New York, making some sense of its complicated order — and by extension, that of his own innate complexity. In the way that his photographs tell the stories of the people inside the frame by collecting their narratives, Stanton’s acquiring his own city fragment by fragment, shot by shot. Like the city after which his project is named, Humans of New York is his story, and it is everybody else’s.
Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York book is out today from St. Martin’s press.
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