I first discovered “Humans of New York” on social media. Like many others I kept seeing these pictures appear on my Facebook feed. I even shared a few of them on my own page. I looked forward to seeing what characters would appear next and what their stories would be. I became more and more curious about it and so, as I do with everything I have an interest in I looked it up and began reading all about it. Brandon Stanton began taking pictures in 2010 after he lost his job as a bond trader in Chicago. He didn’t know what to do so he began taking pictures, first of things he saw and then of random people he met on the street. Photography was just something he enjoyed doing and not something he ever saw as a career. This idea has now developed into a worldwide blog with millions of followers called “Humans of New York”.
At first Stanton’s idea was to gather 10,000 portraits, plot them on a map of the city and present them to a publication but the project soon began to grow into something much bigger. He started having conversations with the subjects in his photographs rather than just taking their picture. He asked them personal and intimate questions about their lives and coupled these stories with their pictures. This seemed to be the key that unlocked the magic of “Humans of New York”. Now it has between 13 -15 million followers on its Facebook page and blog. Two books have been released, one of which has been on the best seller list for several months and another due out at the end of the year. “Humans of New York” has also won a Webby for “Best Use of Photography” and a People’s Voice Award for “Best Cultural Blog.” Stanton was also named one of Time Magazine’s 30 Under 30 People Changing The World in 2013.
What I find interesting about this is the project didn’t develop out of a desire to get a new job or to start a new career or to make loads of money. It began out of a love for photography. He loved taking pictures. He actually started taking them in the months leading up to loosing his job. He would pick up his camera on the weekends and go out and take pictures in order to escape the stress of the situation he was in. He knew that he was about to lose his job and he just wanted to get away from the reality of the situation. That was the motivation behind the project that has become so successful.
By his own admission Stanton says that he had been thinking about money for two years straight as a bond holder. He made a decision to change his perspective and do something that had nothing to do with money. When he was working in finance he would constantly say to himself “I am going to make this money and then I will do the thing I love”. I really related to this because I am always saying to myself when I have money then I will do it or when I am finished this course I can do that and it goes on and on. There is always a reason not to do the thing you want to do. Sometimes they are even very good reasons but in the end they are still excuses. Stanton spent two years thinking about making money and at the end of those two years he had nothing to show for it. That is when he decided to do something different. His goal was to make enough money to get by and to allow him to do the thing he loved most. Now his blog is famous and his photography is recognised around the world.
Stanton worked on his blog for a while before he received any recognition. He remembers in the beginning his friends and family thinking he was crazy. The moment he knew it was going to work was when he started to see strangers liking the posts and taking an interest in his photographs. All of a sudden it wasn’t just his friends and family liking and commenting on his posts. He started noticing strangers names appearing on the blog. According to Stanton you have to be your own “first fan” in the beginning and try not to listen to the negative things that people say. He also believes that you have to work everyday and pay very close attention to your work in order to build something new and continue to make it better. In “Human’s of New York’s” case making it better came in the form of telling people’s story.
The turning point happened one day when Stanton met a lady who was dressed all in green. Her clothes were green, her shoes were green even her hair was green. Instead of just taking her picture, as he had been doing up until that point, he decided to have a conversation with her. He wanted to find out more about her. She told him that she used to dress in a different colour every single day but one day she chose green. This was a good day and so now she has been green for 15 years. Stanton put this story, along with the photo on his blog and that was the beginning. This post received more attention than any of his other posts had up until that point.
If you ask Stanton why he thinks this photo was so popular he will say that it is due to the fact that he included her story. He has said that he did not think the photo itself was that remarkable. Each story he hears on the streets of New York is different from the last and that makes it original. Even though we all have similarities, each persons story is a little different because it’s their own personal story. Of course we can all relate to tragic or joyful accounts of people’s lives but each story is still unique to each person.
Stanton had to first overcome his fear of interacting with a stranger and he had to take the time to get to know the people he had been photographing. This method paid off. He was of course afraid of looking silly or of being uncomfortable at the start but he had to take the risk in order to create something new. That is what makes his blog different to others and it’s what makes his style different from other photographers. He is looking beyond the photo and reaching people on a more human level. It can be difficult to disarm people at first but the risk has proved worth it through what has evolved out of a simple idea.
In a way the photography has become secondary even though that’s what started it all. The main focus is now how can he take this interaction with a stranger on the street and transform it into something that his followers will connect too. He has to be able to capture an intimate moment and make it public without loosing that something special. People see the photos and stories pop up on their Facebook feed everyday and they respond to them. Whether it’s because they have had a similar experience or maybe they see someone who looks like them and they can instantly relate to them, so many people have responded too and connected with this blog. Whatever the reason Stanton seems to have found the winning combination.
The interviews that end up on Facebook or on the website are not like regular interviews. Stanton takes it upon himself to ask the hard questions. To ask the questions that people may not have even wanted to ask themselves such as what is your greatest struggle? Or what has been the saddest moment in your life? He prefers to approach people who are on their own because when they are with friends or family often their answers can be different or they can clam up. This of course is not always possible. Sometimes he only includes one small snippet of his conversation and that is the caption that is used and shared with millions. He uses the piece he thinks will grab people’s attention the most or the one that struck a chord with him. This is often something people would not put on social media themselves because we all like to present ourselves to the world in a certain way. The stories we keep to ourselves are often the most interesting but also the most vulnerable.
The irony is “Humans of New York” would never have become popular without social media and yet it’s Stanton’s real connection with people on the street that has made the blog such a success. Perhaps this shows that we need both in order to progress. The internet has allowed us to discover amazing things that we would never had access to. However it can also disconnect us from each other. “Humans of New York” reminds us not to forget the power that lies in the real conversations we have with each other everyday, even the ones we have with complete strangers.