Brandon Stanton: Getting to know the man behind Humans of New York
On a cloudy Friday afternoon, Metro met with photographer Brandon Stanton in front of the Barnes & Noble bookstore on the north side of Union Square at 17th street in Manhattan. The banner advertising his “Humans of New York” book event on Oct. 15, a project that stemmed from his wildly successful blog, hung prominently in the store’s window. He has come here to hunt for new subjects, everyday New Yorkers whose images he will share and stories he will tell in a way that piques the interest of thousands of loyal followers.
After pleasantries are exchanged and the game plan reviewed, Stanton heads west on 17th Street to find his first subject of the day — and we follow.
Stanton is straightforward and honest with his approach. He casually walks up to his subjects and simply asks them if they want their picture taken. He also tells them about his now famous blog, Humans of New York, and shows people the site on his iPhone. He doesn’t linger too long behind the camera, as most of his time is devoted to speaking with his subject and understanding their story.
After approaching six people and photographing five (one person politely declined), we made our way back to Union Square where we had the opportunity to learn more about the man who has managed to find a new way to photograph a city that has been photographed countless times.
Metro: What made you want to start shooting people?
Stanton: [Laughs] Shooting people?! That’s sounds funny!
Humans of New York was really an evolution. It wasn’t a fully formed idea that I thought of and executed. Basically it came of just getting the camera in my hand at the age of 26 and really loved photography and I would go into downtown Chicago every weekend when I was working as a bond trader and I would just kind of photograph everything, or take like a thousand photographs a day. Then one or two of those photos would be people, and I found that I liked the photographs of people because they were more unique.
So I started specializing in that and I went from pictures of people to pictures of people where I asked them permission. I was traveling around the country just doing photography after I lost my job. When I got to New York, I was taking mainly pictures of people, and I started sort of gathering pictures and then I had the idea to do Humans of New York.
Did it start off as candid photography, or were you looking for street style?
It started out with all kinds of photography. Then I started doing some candid shots, and then I started asking people for their pictures. The evolution of Humans of New York is really about getting more engaged with my subjects.
When you first started asking permission, what was that experience like?
There was a lot of no’s at first, probably about two out of three would say no. Now, only one out of every three people say no.
How did you deal with the rejection?
At the time, I was just so obsessed and passionate about photography, that even though it kind of had an emotional toll on me, I wanted the photos so bad that I just just kept approaching. Even though I got rejected a lot, the photos I did get were really special to me. There was a strong drive to get those photos despite any negative responses.
How do you choose your subjects?
I try to keep that as vague as possible. Sometimes it will be a visual cue, like a color or something they are wearing. Or, a lot of the times, it will just be the fact that they are sitting alone and that I can easily talk to them. When I say that I try to keep it as vague as possible, I try to keep it that way to myself — not necessarily that I try to conceal it or anything, I just don’t want to be looking for anything in particular because I don’t want the blog to take on any patterns.
What’s the shooting process like?
I spend as long as I need to to get what I want. Sometimes it’s less than a minute, sometimes it’s 10 minutes. Normally when I approach someone, I will take a full body shot first and then I will start talking to them. As I’m talking, I will snap some more candid photos.
What kind of camera gear do you use?
I use a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and my lens is a 50mm f 1.2.
What’s your craziest experience from shooting and interacting with people?
I get asked that a lot and anytime I answer that, it feels like I’m faking. I have had 10,000 conversations, I don’t know what the craziest… OK, here is one actually. One time I was in Bryant Park and it was completely empty except from this 65- to 70-year-old man sitting alone with his laptop. I went up and I asked him for his photo and he said, “What are you doing?” and I said, “I’m running this website called Humans of New York,” and he flipped his laptop around and he was looking at the page! Isn’t that cool?
Have you kept contact with people or made new connections?
Very, very casual acquaintances. You know. I’m very singularly focused with people in New York and it takes up a lot of my time, so most of my free time is spent maintaining my old friendships and spending time with my girlfriend because I don’t have much time.
Do you ever think you will run out of subjects?
Everybody has a story, it’s not really visual things I’m looking for. There are eight million people, there are eight million stories, and those eight million people are constantly refreshing and changing over. So, no.
What inspired you to create a book?
I think it’s kind of natural when you have such a big body of work to distill it into a tangible collection. I think there was always a natural path that I was heading towards. I had to get my audience to a certain size before I could even sit down and have conversations with publishers. So a lot of it was just a timing thing where Humans of New York had to get big enough to a point where a publisher would take a chance on it.
Since you created your blog in 2010, how do you feel about the other Humans of different cities?
I try to focus on my own work and not the impact of the work. So whatever the work inspires or the inspiration people take on it, that’s great. I just try to focus on my own photography.
Any interaction with the other people behind other Humans pages?
I can’t say zero interaction, but as I said, I just try to focus on my own project.
Now that the Humans of New York blog is extremely popular, receiving worldwide recognition, and you have a book, what is next for you? Are there any new projects you’re working on?
My aim moving forward is to continue focusing on improving my storytelling and photography. I don’t plan any major evolutions. I feel that I still have a lot of room to grow within the Humans of New York format.
Brandon Stanton will be signing copies of his new book, “Humans of New York,” on Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. on the fourth floor of Barnes & Noble in Union Square, New York City.
Follow Lenyon Whitaker on Twitter: @lenyon