In this interview, Brandon Stanton of the successful Humans of New York blog discusses the life behind his unique portraits. He explains why a photograph is only as gripping as the life it reveals. And he shares his path to and within the electrifying metropolis: his journey to New York, what brought him there and what keeps him there, swimming among the millions of stories and characters on the streets.
You gave up your job in Chicago in order to live in New York. What initially drew you to the city?
Brandon Stanton: Well, more accurately, I’d say that my job gave me up. When I lost my job, I decided to travel for a few months. Street photography was a hobby of mine, and I wanted a chance to explore/document some of the major US cities. New York was the third city on my itinerary. By the time I arrived in NYC, I’d begun to really focus on street portraits. So when I saw all the people here, I was naturally very inspired. I came to the city for the first time when I was 26. Two months later, I was living here and working full time on Humans of New York (HONY).
Has your experience in NYC matched your expectations?
Brandon Stanton: I always say that the city has been very good to me. The qualities of the city–the diversity, the energy, the randomness, and above all the people–are the very things that make my photographs compelling. I owe so much of my success to New York.
Have there been photographs that exceeded your expectations in terms of feedback and interest?
Brandon Stanton: That’s always happening. The opposite happens also. There will be photos that I think are great, but the response will be less than enthusiastic. If there’s any rhyme or reason to the feedback it’d be this: the most warmly received photos are those that tell the best stories. A story does better than a quote. A quote does better than a caption. A caption does better than a short description. For example: This man was live-streaming his Times Square visit to his son in Argentina. I think that knowledge really enhances the photo.
For HONY the streets have become like your office. How has that changed your view of the city?
Brandon Stanton: I have literally been working on the blog since my first day in New York. So I can’t really say that spending so much time on the streets has changed my view, but I imagine that it has provided me with a fairly unique view. Perhaps less insulated than most. I’ve noticed that when you stare out the window of a car, or look down at the street from an office building, the people can seem unreal. I don’t get that view very often.
Being the street and city expert that you are, can you tell us your most beloved and hated places to hang out?
Brandon Stanton: I’ve spent all my time people watching, so that’s really the thing that I’m most qualified to speak about. The places I love most in New York are those that have plenty of people, and that’s pretty much everywhere. I get the most portraits where the most people are gathered: the subway, parks, Times Square. If a place is popular, chances are I go there a lot. I’d say my favorite place in the world is Central Park.
What were some of your favorite pictures and why?
Brandon Stanton: My best pictures normally involve a great subject, a great story, and a great backdrop. A lot of the times I get some combination of those three things, but when everything falls into place, I know that I’ve captured something really special. The photo that always immediately comes to mind is one that I took last year in TriBeCa. There was a huge geyser of steam coming out of a street grate. Steam is always leaking up from the streets, but I’d never seen this much before. Cars were stopping. It was really quite beautiful, so I started frantically looking for a subject. I was in a rush because I was afraid that someone would flip a switch and the steam would shut off. After ten minutes or so, I hadn’t found anyone compelling, so I just settled for a couple kids eating lunch on a nearby curb. Turns out, they were students at a nearby ballet academy. They ended up striking a beautiful pose in front of the steam. Great subjects, great story, great backdrop.
How do you decide whom to photograph, and what do you find special about the people in New York?
Brandon Stanton: I normally give a lame explanation for my selection process, such as: “I photograph whatever interests me.” But it fits. I certainly don’t want to be looking for anything specific, because I really don’t want there to be strong threads or themes running through my photography. I’d rather it be as random as possible, so that it most accurately reflects what’s passing by me on the streets. I try to observe everything, and just follow my whims and curiosities. With that being said, my whims normally draw me to children, animals, and couples–especially if they are old and holding hands. I’m a pretty big softie when it comes to that stuff.
For example: I wandered into the lobby of a nursing home on the Upper West Side and discovered this man on his way to deliver a yellow bear to his wife. “I visit her everyday,” he said, “even when the mind is gone, the heart shows through.”
You often share the story behind the picture. Is there one that is particularly emotional for you?
Brandon Stanton: I won’t say that there’s one story in particular, but I will say that there’s a lot of loneliness out there. I can feel it when I’m talking to people. It sometimes feels like I’m the first person in a long time who’s taking an interest in their lives. My fans always ask how I get people to share their stories. I think loneliness plays a big part. Many of these people just enjoy having someone to talk to, if even for a couple of minutes. There are plenty of people out there with a spouse and kids who are still very lonely. They may get asked what’s for dinner, but nobody’s really asking them about their thoughts and feelings.
You spend a lot of time in various neighborhoods. What would you say makes a good neighborhood?
Brandon Stanton: I’ll tell one story that I think illustrates the value of a neighborhood. I was walking in Brooklyn one day, and a group of kids passed by me. A woman from across the street called one of the kids by name and said: “Does your grandmother know where you are?” No amount of money, or no police force, could provide the sort of accountability provided by that woman. A neighborhood is a group of people who know each other, who support each other, and who hold each other accountable.
In an office people go to the kitchen when they need a little break. Where do you like to reenergize in the city?
Brandon Stanton: I honestly don’t like breaks. Breaks stress me out. Nothing energizes me like a good photo. Nothing stresses me out like going a long time without one. I’ve managed to find something that I really love, so my work energizes me.
If you had the chance, what would you like to change in NYC public space?
Brandon Stanton: I’d say more public bathrooms. Depending on where you are in the city, the sudden need to pee can present a major crisis.
Could you give us a sneak preview of what we can expect on HONY in the future?
Brandon Stanton: I don’t want to stray too far from the formula that’s brought me this far. I always want to improve my photography, of course. But I also want to get better at telling stories. I think HONY is unique because of its storytelling, so I want to dive much deeper into the art of storytelling. Moving forward, there will probably be some travel involved. The vast majority of my work will remain in NYC, of course, but I’d like to apply the HONY brand of storytelling to other cities as well.