The Evolution of ‘Humans of New York’

October 3, 2014 at 1:46 pm 2 comments

DSC_1609_Brandon_Stanton

Brandon Stanton in Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium. (photo by Tina Hay)

Brandon Stanton, creator of the Humans of New York franchise, had some good advice for the 2,500 Penn State students who came to see him in Eisenhower Auditorium last night:

Don’t wait for perfect.

In the space of just four years, Stanton has gone from an unemployed bond trader to Internet sensation. His Facebook page—featuring his iconic photos and stories of everyday people—has more than 10 million likes, and his 2013 book, Humans of New York, spent 21 weeks on The New York Times Best-Seller List. A follow-up book, Little Humans, is due out next week.

But it didn’t happen all at once, he told the audience last night. Instead, he found his niche through an evolution, a gradual series of tweaks to his approach.

In 2010, as a 26-year-old bond trader in Chicago, Stanton “was looking for a hobby,” and after winning $4,000 in a football pool, he bought his first camera. Originally he photographed landscapes and landmarks in Chicago. When he eventually started taking photos of people, it was from far away, without their knowing.

Then, for a while, he would find someone who was engrossed in something—say, reading a newspaper—and position himself on one knee, waiting for them to look up and realize he was there. When they did, he’d snap their photo—which, needless to say, they didn’t always appreciate.

“I didn’t know you could ask people to take their photo,” he says simply.

HONY founder Brandon Stanton at an Eisenhower Auditorium news conference. (photo by Tina Hay)

HONY founder Brandon Stanton at an Eisenhower Auditorium news conference. (photo by Tina Hay)

When he finally did start asking, he was pleasantly surprised at how many people said yes: “I remember feeling such satisfaction. And I realized, This is kind of special.”

About five weeks into his new hobby, Stanton got fired from his job, and got the idea to move to New York City to pursue his street photography. Given New York’s rich diversity of people, he says, “I just thought, This would be such a great place to do a [photo] blog.

“I was sleeping on a mattress in the cheapest room I could possibly find in Bedford-Stuyvesant, taking 20 to 30 portraits a day,” he recalls. “And that went on for six months, in complete anonymity. It was a very hard and lonely time.

“Then I discovered Facebook.”

Stanton created a Facebook page, began posting a few photos a day, and the fans started trickling in—a huge antidote to the loneliness. “I started noticing names of people I didn’t know who were following my work. It was the most liberating feeling in the entire world … it lifted a million pounds off my shoulders.”

At first the photos carried only short captions, if any. So another turning point came in late 2011 when he started attaching stories to the photos. Stanton recounted having been sick with the flu and unable to get outside to shoot new portraits, so he rooted around in his existing photos and found one of a woman dressed entirely in green—even green hair. He remembered that she had said something to him that day, and he decided to put her comment into the caption:

HONY screen grab

The caption reads:

“So do you do a different color every day?”
“No, I used to go through different stages. But then I found that I was happiest when I was green, so I’ve been green for 15 years.”

The photo—one that Stanton had initially regarded as a “throwaway”—became an instant hit. (Currently it has nearly 156,000 “likes.”) Stanton changed his approach accordingly, and now spends as much time talking with each of his subjects as he does shooting their photos; brief excerpts from those conversations now accompany the portraits he posts to his Facebook page. The questions he asks are personal—”What is your greatest struggle right now?” “Can you remember the time when you felt the most afraid?”—and the answers he gets are surprisingly honest.

In August and September of this year, Stanton took his HONY concept to an international level, doing a 50-day world tour in partnership with the United Nations. His photos of schoolchildren, shopkeepers, and young mothers in such countries as Iraq, Israel, and Ukraine revealed that even in areas ravaged by conflict, people are … well, people. There’s a reason for that, he told his audience last night: He went out of his way to look for ordinary people and moments.

“If I’m covering a rally or protest with 12 journalists, and they all have cameras … there could be one guy who’s really angry and all 12 photographers will be gathered around that person. And that’s the photo that goes out to the world. People want to find the extreme images and stories; those are what really sell newspapers.

“I wanted to depict normality in places where very extreme headlines are coming out … to apply this normal intimate process in some scary places.

“I’m just trying to show normality. Not extremity, just normalcy.”

Stanton’s lecture last night was sponsored by the Penn State Student Programming Association.

Tina Hay, editor

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jo Prostko  |  October 7, 2014 at 8:28 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I had never heard of this man, his work or his FB page. Love it.

  • 2. 1Human  |  January 26, 2017 at 8:39 pm

    Great!

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