Telling the World’s Stories: HONY’s Brandon Stanton
Since its inception in the summer of 2010, Humans of New York has evolved well beyond what its creator, Brandon Stanton, initially envisioned as a street-photography blog featuring residents of the five boroughs. Today’s HONY is an eloquent mix of photography and storytelling, a true social media phenomenon, and a powerful force for good.
Every day, Humans of New York (HONY) brings millions of people, from all around the world, together to reflect on the stories and photos of strangers—formerly anonymous passersby—whom Brandon Stanton has chosen to feature on his HONY blog (and its corresponding Facebook page and Instagram feed). In tone and subject matter, these intimate, confessional works of art (10,000 and counting) range from quirky and funny to shatteringly tragic. Some capture an ephemeral moment in a person’s life; others capture, in just a photo and a few hundred words, the story of a person’s greatest love, greatest sorrow, or deepest regret.
For many of its fans, part of HONY’s power is that the posts, when viewed together, seem to speak to the universality of human experience, despite our billions of superficial differences. But Brandon says emphatically that he’s not working with this goal in mind. His focus is on his subjects, not on his oeuvre.
“I’m never trying to show what’s the same in everybody,” he explains. “I’m looking for what’s unique about that person. My goal is to tell each person’s story as best I can, not in relation to all the other stories I’m telling—just his or her story.”
Brandon began the HONY project in the summer of 2010. His goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers and plot their photos on a map. But as he worked, the HONY blog began to take a different shape. HONY’s most recent posts are more street journalism than street photography (although Brandon doesn’t feel especially attached to either label).
“At first, it was just me posting portraits every single day,” he explains. “And then through the process of doing that, I started having these short conversations with people, which turned into these pretty intense interviews…. If you look at the blog and compare it with the early days, it went from just something that was photographic to something that is largely narrative and storytelling, where the photography is almost secondary.”
So HONY today is not the result of a fully formed idea Brandon had five years ago. It’s the result of what he calls “hundreds of small evolutions.” And this evolution is ongoing. Just in the past six months, the amount of time Brandon spends interviewing his subjects has doubled, he estimates, from 10 minutes to 20. “The stories continue to get longer and longer and more and more fleshed out,” he says.
Like his work, his inspirations fall into many categories. When asked about artists he admires, Brandon cites the deeply evocative work of the photographer Vivian Maier, as well as Ernest Hemingway’s spare but powerful prose. And he’s an avid reader of nonfiction: “I love to read, and I love the great biographers. One of my favorites is Robert Caro. He wrote The Power Broker, and he wrote a wonderful four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, so really great biographies inspire me.”
He also gives the famed New York street-fashion photographer The Sartorialist some credit for the idea behind HONY. “When I moved to New York and I was looking for examples of photographers and blogs that had made it, he was one that I looked at,” he says. “I’m sure I took some stuff from him as well. He’s a very nice guy; I had lunch with him recently.”
HUMANS OF THE WORLD
Brandon’s stories are not only reaching a global audience; they’re also capturing the stories of people from around the world.
In the summer of 2014, Brandon embarked on a 50-day, 10-country journey (he ended up adding two more countries to the itinerary on-the-fly), in partnership with the UN Secretary General’s Millennium Development Goals Advocacy Group—taking HONY international. As with his New York portraits, he has said that the trip’s goal was not to say anything about the world; rather, its goal was to “listen to as many people as possible.”
The trip was also meant to raise awareness for the Millennium Development Goals—eight international development goals that all UN member states have agreed the world should accomplish by the year 2015 (such as eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, and combatting HIV/AIDS and other diseases). The trip took him to areas in distress, including Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine, and South Sudan, and allowed him to shed light on the plights of people living in these areas and to share their individual stories.
In the summer of 2015, Brandon took HONY on another international trip, this time to Iran and Pakistan; his work there introduced viewers to the average but extraordinary humans of these countries, and it led to the raising of millions of dollars, through crowd-funding campaigns, for causes and for individual people in dire need.
The extensive reach of social media allows HONY (which currently has more than 15,000,000 followers on Facebook) to have a major philanthropic impact on causes far, such as Pakistan’s Bonded Labour Liberation Front, and near, such as a scholarship fund for the students of Mott Hall Bridges Academy in New York’s Brownsville neighborhood.
HOW TO BE HUMANS
No matter where Brandon is working, his process stays consistent—aside from the addition of an interpreter where necessary. “I follow the same process wherever I go, and let any differences emerge naturally,” he says. “It’s just stopping random people and asking them the questions I normally ask.”
But as the blog has gone from something very visual to something that is based more on stories, Brandon’s process for selecting subjects has changed. For example, a primary criterion used to be that the person was visually arresting. “A lot of times, that was a bright color, or they just happened to be standing in a very interesting scene,” he says. “But then as the blog evolved and became much more about storytelling, that changed.” Now, Brandon says he’s looking primarily for people who look like they aren’t in a hurry to get somewhere. “Since the interview is so central now…there’s still a large element of randomness to it, but I’m mainly looking for someone who’s alone or who looks like they have a little bit of time to talk.”
Brandon’s camera is a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. He takes multiple shots while he’s interviewing a subject and then chooses a photo that he feels goes with the quote or story he has selected to represent the subject. The photos are minimally edited—at most, he says, he spends a couple of minutes in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom on post-camera adjustments.
Any follower of HONY has surely wondered about the interview part of the process. How does Brandon get his subjects to be so self-revealing? He says he doesn’t have one answer to that question—but points out that the people on the blog are the people who have agreed to have their photo taken (plenty of them do say no), so they are people who start out at least somewhat comfortable with the idea of opening up to a stranger.
He continues, “I won’t say that I’ve learned any sort of process that makes it work; it’s just that I’ve gotten comfortable doing it. I’m much more at ease approaching people, I don’t get nervous, I’m very calm about it, and I think that comes across…. When you’re very comfortable and sincerely interested in what the other person is saying—calm enough to be completely present and talk to the person from a place of genuine curiosity and engagement—that allows other people to be comfortable. If there’s a reason people are willing to reveal themselves to me, it’s that. They have a person who’s taking a genuine interest in their life, asking them questions about the meaning of their experiences and their thoughts on things that maybe nobody has ever asked them about before. I think people appreciate someone taking an interest in their story, and it’s validating in a way.”
Although he has some standard questions, he lets the conversations guide him, rather than sticking to a script. Interviewing is a skill that he has developed over time and that he has to practice: “Even if I take a couple of weeks off for vacation, I feel myself getting a little nervous when I walk up to somebody. It’s beyond any sort of expertise in asking questions or doing interviews; it’s just that I’ve approached thousands of strangers on the street, so I can do it now with a sense of calm.”
THE FUTURE OF HUMANS
HONY’s rise has been swift—in 2010, Brandon was newly unemployed (after losing a bond-trading job in Chicago) and new to New York, with the idea of photographing strangers for a blog. Photography was one of his many obsessions (among the other obsessions he says he’s had in his life are saltwater aquariums and the baritone euphonium). But in terms of social-media phenomena, five years is a very long time—HONY is an institution that has spawned copycat blogs in cities around the world.
The second HONY book, Humans of New York: Stories, is scheduled for release in October 2015. Brandon says it will be quite different from his first book, because that book contained work only from the first half of HONY’s life online. “If I had a learning curve, that’d probably be right in the middle of the steepest part of it,” he says. “Once the first book had gone to print, HONY had evolved so much that it was pretty obvious there was another book to be made…. I would say there’s about ten times more text than there was in the first book, to give you an idea of just how different it is.”
So what’s next? Brandon says he wants to bring HONY to every country in the world. And now that HONY feels like an established success, perhaps he’ll find time to relax more—or at least do some different types of work that he couldn’t explore while he was focused on building HONY. “Now that things are more established, I feel less pressure…. On the way up, I had this feeling of being onto something big and not wanting to mess it up.”
He gives his girlfriend and maturity some credit for his being able to take a bit of time away from the camera nowadays: “My girlfriend and I went to Greece recently for a week, and I did not bring my camera—and that was huge for me, to travel somewhere for a week and not be stopping people on the street and learning their stories.”
Now, he says, he can pass by people who he knows would make for great posts. “And instead of just hating myself for not having my camera, I can rest assured that there will be plenty more where that came from. It feels good, because I used to be very much a one-note kind of person when it came to HONY. It was all I thought about for years— but I think that’s necessary if you want to build something new and huge, especially if you’re an artist.”
These days, Brandon is exploring new formats for HONY—new ways to tell people’s stories. “I think that over these last few years, what I’ve identified HONY as being is not photography, and it’s not writing. I think what HONY is, is…creating a bubble of intimacy on the street where I can learn and share the stories of absolute strangers. Whether it’s New York or Iran, and whether that’s into other mediums like more long-form writing or video. Anywhere I can bring that with me—anywhere that bubble goes, HONY goes.”
Scroll down for more HONY images and stories, or check out the HONY blog for thousands more.
October 5, 2015
Photos: Brandon Stanton, courtesy of Humans of New York