Humans of New York
Brandon Stanton’s blog pioneers a new form of storytelling
If you’re in New York City, and a guy wearing a backward baseball cap asks to take your photo, beware. Because it’s probably Brandon Stanton, and the next thing he’s going to do is ask you a few questions.
He might open with “What’s your greatest struggle?” or “What’s been your saddest moment?”
But he’s not just being nosy. Stanton (AB ’08) is the creator of Humans of New York, a photo blog with images and stories that offers a glimpse into the lives of New Yorkers.
HONY was born in 2010 when Stanton, who’d been trading bonds in Chicago, lost his job. He decided to spend a summer doing what he enjoyed—traveling and working on photography. Eventually he settled in New York with the idea of creating a photographic census of the city, an interactive map with images of people tagged to the location where they were shot.
But he soon noticed that his best images were not candids of people on the street, they were the portraits of people who agreed to stop and pose for him. And he started finding out more about his models, asking them questions and including a caption with his images.
“I’m a philosophy professor.” “If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?” “Never make an exception of yourself.” “What does that mean?” “People like to make exceptions of themselves. They hold other people to moral codes that they aren’t willing to follow themselves. For example, people tend to think that if they tell a lie, it’s because it was absolutely necessary. But if someone else tells a lie, it means they’re dishonest. So never make an exception of yourself. If you’re a thief, don’t complain about being robbed.”
“I think the main trajectory of the evolution of Humans of New York is that it’s gotten much more intimate,” Stanton says. “Now it can’t really even be described as a photography blog. It’s more of a storytelling blog, where I tell these people’s stories in images and words.”
In the early days Stanton borrowed money to pay rent, but a print sale bought him more time. He continued to hone his photography and interview skills, posting about six images a day and traveling to work in other locations like Boston, San Francisco and Iran.
Three years and 5,000 images later, HONY has an audience of more than a million (1.2 million Facebook likes plus 400,000 Tumblr and 130,000 Instagram followers). In October, St. Martin’s Press published Humans of New York, a collection of 400 photos and stories from the blog. And copycat blogs—Humans of Paris, Berlin and India, for example—have sprung up on Facebook.
There’s additional work that accompanies such growth, like HONY’s fundraising efforts, which brought in $500,000 during the past year for causes like Superstorm Sandy relief and Stanton’s local YMCA. But he still pounds the pavement every day, asking strangers if he can shoot their picture and learn a little about their life.
“I’m continually amazed by the amount of information and disclosure that these people are generous enough to give me on the streets,” he says, “and very amazing stories come out of it.”