Since starting his photographic census of New York a year ago, photographer Brandon Stanton has already captured over 2,000 images of people on the streets of New York. The project has grown from a hobby to now becoming a well publicized website, with writeups in the Associated Press, Washington Times, Gothamist, Ohio.com, Fashionista.com, Faces of London, Bowery Boogie, Huffington Post, New York Post and the Village Voice to name a few.
Brandon’s career started off in a very different direction. Having grown up in Atlanta and then majoring in history at the University of Georgia, he then traded bonds at the Chicago Board of Trade. After losing that job three years later he decided to concentrate on his more artistic endeavors and photography was always a big passion of his. Brandon says, “Photography was a hobby at the time, but I began doing it much more extensively. I pretty much taught myself. Some days I would take 1000 photographs. At some point, I realized that my most unique photographs were the ones I was taking of people, so I began to specialize in street portraits.”
He then visited New York with a friend and after seeing how crowded the streets were he decided that this would be the perfect place to do his street portraits. Brandon recalls, “I had the idea of the photographic census, so went back to Chicago, packed my bags, and moved to New York. As the website grew, I began to have more in-depth interactions with the people I photographed. If I met a particularly interesting person, I would write a story about them. I now have about 40 stories, along with the 2000 photos, and the writing has become a significant part of the site.”
Brandon’s website not only gives the viewer a glimpse at the personal side of New York through the many colorful people that inhabit it, but you also find out some fascinating tid bits about Brandon himself. Such as how at the University of Georgia he served as a history tutor for several future NFL players and how he was once arrested for taking photos inside the South Beach mansion of the late fashion designer Gianni Versace.
His initial goal for Humans of New York was to gather 10,000 street portraits and to plot them on an interactive map. As his website describes, “Upon completion, the neighborhoods of New York will be viewable through the faces of their inhabitants. However, along the way, the website has become a catalogue of random human interactions on the streets of New York. Humans of New York is a photographic census. It is the story of that census. And it is also the story of the people who have chosen to participate.”
We spoke to Brandon to find out more about this ambitious project, possible future visions he has for it, and what he has learned from his experiences along the way.
How did the idea of photographing New Yorkers come about and how has it grown from the initial stages?
It was a year ago when I was trading bonds in Chicago. I would do photography on the weekends, as it was only a hobby. But then I lost my job and I wanted to do something with more of a creative outlet and more people-oriented. My original plan was to take time off work to travel and photograph. I went to New Orleans and Philadelphia, and also photographed in Chicago and Atlanta. I was initially interested in street scenes and then I started doing people. Those were the ones I enjoyed the most and were the most rare. Any kind of landmark photography has already been done. People are more of a rarity in photography. So then I started approaching people and asking them for photos. I found those stood out even more so I gravitated towards that type of photography even more. When I got to New York I was struck by the sheer number of people and they were very diverse, so I felt I found the place that most suited me and that type of photography. So I took some time here in the summer last year and got about 600 photos together. Then I got the idea to put them together in a census format. I then moved here because of the street scene and the unique people you find here. I was hoping there would be enough interest in my photos, and to build a name for myself as a photographer that way. I then got a bit of press and it really took off. I loved trading but to be honest it is a very time consuming and difficult job. I did love the job but I’m also glad I found a way to creatively express myself. I am lucky to have had some savings put away and I live very cheaply. I also sold some of my work, but of course I would like sponsorship for my work. I want to turn my name into a brand eventually.
Do you plan to turn the project into a book or documentary one day?
I have been thinking about what form the book would take, such as possibly a coffee table book with photos and stories. But something I think is even more compelling would be a single narrative about my story. I would like to construct something that is a continuing thred and I believe that would be more like my style. The people that I pick to photograph are people I am interested in for a reason. They have something that I am curious about. So together all these people that I choose ultimately say something about me. I have done some interesting things here so maybe it will be a coffee table book about New York.
I also love a good novel and the form of the stories I am writing are individual pieces. I would like to make something more of a coffee table book that include those pieces. Sew them all together into a single narrative, such as literary non-fiction.
As far as a documentary I actually started filming before I started doing photography. In college I started filming a piece on student athletes. I found three athletes and profiled them, so it is something I am thinking about. When I am talking to people I meet a lot of times my conversations with them are more relaxed conversations as opposed to structured interviews. I have a very casual conversation with them so they are more relaxed. I have thought about a documentary especially because of how people are. They are in a world with so much stimuli. They like to watch things more than read about things so that medium would work well in that respect. The way I remember my conversations and interractions with people is I go home after meeting them and I then transcribe everything I remember them saying. Most things I write have a thred, and there was something about that person that interested me. So now I have a much better idea of what interests me and when that person talks there is something they said that really resonates with me. I narrow my eyes on a certain part of the conversation that I find the most useful. I am constantly doing mental sorting about what that person said. For instance someone will say something poignant and my mind will latch onto that. I have thought about tape recording them, but I find it adds a large weight to the process. I much prefer a more spontaneous way of doing it. I want to interpret the message instead of doing it from a journalistic point of view and transcribing it word for word.
Has doing this changed your perception of New York and New Yorkers?
I watched the show Human Planet on BBC and with every single part of the world they showed I have already seen that type of person in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. I believe New York is the city of the just arrived. Meaning people come here to change their lives and they manage to live in harmony with people from all over the world. New York represents a broad swath of humanity in a single place. You take people from all over the world, whether they be Israeli or Palestinians, or any other demographic, but in Brooklyn they live side by side.
I guess its for the better that new Yorkers have a weird reputation. In general in life and also in doing this project, I’ve learned that the more you get to know people the less stereotypes hold up. I have approached thousands of types of people, and I really haven’t noticed a difference in the general temperament of people. A large crowd of people will affect the way people react more than anything else. People are obviously more stressed and in a hurry here, but I actually haven’t noticed much of a difference between New York and Philadelphia. If I sense someone is in a hurry I will filter that and I don’t ask them for a photo. I have become very good at reading people’s energy before asking them for a photo or not. It is not even a conscious thing anymore, but I can now feel people’s energy about whether they will say yes or no. I’ve noticed the people in the biggest hurry are usually businessmen. I stop less people in a business area for this reason, and I’ve noticed people all dress alike and are in more of a hurry. So I don’t really hang around business centers much for those reasons as I look for something different and that stands out for my photos. The regular joe isn’t really the person I stop as much.
What do you typically look for in someone on the street that might interest you the most in taking their photo?
I find that during Fashion Week there are more fashionable people around. So after that week is over clothes don’t interest me as much. I photograph people that look interesting for a particular reason, but then after that I photograph people that look different to that, so what appeals to me is constantly changing. Even if someone happens to be standing near something I find interesting I will photograph that. I really like a diverse crowd of people. Having gone to so many different neighborhoods I am noticing things from certain neighborhoods, whether it is East Africans in Clinton Hill or Rastafarians in Bed Stuy, and you start to see trends. I worked really hard this winter and I go out in all types of weather. I find there are more distractions in nice weather and sometimes I would rather be doing something else on a nice day. So I love hanging around in parks during the nice weather and I allow myself to be more selfish about where I photograph. It is much easier to talk to people and they are more open in the nice weather as well. They aren’t rushing to get inside or under cover like they are in the winter time. You get more unique photos in the winter time though because not many other photographers are out there. Any time I get a unique photo of any sort, no matter what the circumstance, I am very happy.
What lessons have you learned from doing this?
I personally think New York is the only place to do a project of this sort. Since I started I’ve had other people ask me if they could do this same project in other locations and I tell them to go ahead because I just want to do it in New York. It is definitely energetic and reckless here. It is also fast, crowded and loud. New York is either for you or not. You either love it or hate it. I have learned a ton about people, and I am becoming a specialist in communicating with people. I always thought that saying the right thing would be the way to open people up, but its more about how calm you are or if you intimidate them. It’s really just the energy you give off. I don’t oversell it or push them for a photo. Now I am just relaxed and I ask them if I can take their photo. You have to be non-threatening and calm about it. It has taught me a lot about energy and non-verbal communication.
My general rule is that anyone on the street is fair game. New York is a very transitory city, people who visit here are still very much part of the city, if only for a day or a weekend. So I include everyone.
I remember my first street portrait, but I can’t say I remember the first one from New York necessarily.
I’ve definitely gotten better at what I do. When I first started, I used to shoot people where I found them. Now, I pretty much always have an “idea,” and compose people more with their environment.
Any photography, presentation or organizational tips you would like to share?
My camera is an EOS 7D. My most simple photography tips are take thousands of pictures, keep the sun behind you, and don’t be afraid to lay on the ground!
Kickstarter.com is a very interesting site. You can create a presentation for creative projects and people can then donate to your project. Doing something like this with my photos has always been at the back of my mind. I am uncomfortable about asking for money so ideally I would like it to be a self supportive project. People find the project very compelling and they like the idea, so I could definitely fundraise from people wanting to donate. I have been doing this a while and I have amassed a lot of great content, so I am in the process of trying to arrange it right now. A couple of people suggested I approach the Mayor’s office to get them involved. I am privilaged to not have to think about the financial aspect of it at the moment. The City of NY might want to use the photos for an ad campaign for the city, but I like being able to tell people I photograph I am not profitting out of it. The project is kept more authentic that way.
To find out more about Brandon’s project visit www.humansofnewyork.com