In 2008, Brandon Stanton lost his job as a bond trader in Chicago. Instead of rushing to find a new trading position, he did what most of us wish we could do: he grabbed his camera. Deciding to take a sabbatical and indulge what was previously just a hobby, Stanton began to travel around the country to take portraits of residents of the major U.S. cities. After photographing over 600 people on the streets of New York, Stanton realized he was on to something—and decided to focus full-time on telling the story of the people who live in the most populated city in America.
In the three years since he launched Humans of New York, a photography-turned-storytelling blog, Stanton’s work has achieved notable momentum. Now, it boasts one and a half million Facebook followers and a corporate scandal to boot (Stanton launched a campaign against DKNY for using his photos in a window display without his permission earlier this year). He has touched a chord with both New Yorkers and outsiders interested in catching a glimpse of the vibrant individuals who make up the city streets.
From drag queens to chess hustlers, a fashionable math teacher to homeless men down on their luck, people lounging in the park to a group of kids riding the subway, Stanton’s portraits are delightful, captivating, and emotional—but most importantly, they tell a piece of the New York story. As one man lounging on a park bench put it: “HONY is one of the only things keeping people from getting lost in the matrix.”
With a new book out this week, Stanton tells The Daily Beast about how he got his start, his surprising popularity in Tehran, and his favorite opening line: “You mind if I take your photo?”
Originally, your goal was to take pictures of 10,000 people, right?
Right. When I first moved to New York, I had this great collection of photography, and I had this really great way of organizing it. I said, what I’ll do is I’ll take 10,000 portraits, and I’ll plop them on a map of the city where you [can] click on any neighborhood of New York and scroll through the people who live there. So that’s why I originally moved to New York, but obviously the blog has evolved into something much different and much more in-depth than that idea. It started as a pure photography blog, and now I would say it’s more of a storytelling blog.
So have you counted? Have you passed the 10,000?
Oh, I doubt it. I stopped counting a long time ago. I would say I’m somewhere between 5 and 10,000. I just don’t know where exactly. I’ve been doing it for about three years now, and I could probably count the days I’ve taken off on my fingers.
One of the things I love about your photographs is that you’ve managed to capture a huge variety of New Yorkers and to convey the emotion and the unique character of each one. Do you just walk the streets until you find interesting people – or do you have a specific goal for each day?
Well, I post about five or six portraits a day. Some days I get less than that, some days I get more than that. I normally get those in about two, two and a half hours, normally in the late afternoon right before the sun goes down. It’s not very systemized. I don’t have this spreadsheet that says I’m going here this day—I just kind of do it by feel. I’ll just walk and a lot of times it’s just if somebody looks approachable or if somebody’s sitting alone, or if somebody looks like I’ll be able to have a conversation with them, then I’ll approach them.
What’s your typical opening line?
You mind if I take your photo? (Laughs.)
That’s a good one.
I’ve actually whittled it down a lot. When I first started, I tried to explain a lot, and I found I was over-explaining and making people nervous. So I found that the less I talked, the more comfortable a person was.
New Yorkers don’t have the best reputation for being welcoming to strangers. What reaction do you get the most?
I would say two out of every three people allow me to take their pictures. It’s a pretty good record.
It’s kind of impossible to have thousands of conversations with people in the street about their lives and not evolve in some way.
At this point, are most of your images spontaneous or do you now pose and arrange most of the subjects you find?
It’s a mixture of both. I normally start off with a full body shot, but then I move in and start interacting and conversing with the person. In the course of our conversation, I’ll snap more candid photographs. So they’re staged, they’re kind of set interactions where obviously the person knows they’re participating, but within that framework, there’s also a lot of candid moments that hopefully I’m able to capture.
Do you have a favorite photograph?
No, not really. I’ve been asked that so many times. If I answer it, I always feel like I’m just forcing it because, to me, it’s all about the body of work.
Has there been any one photo or person that has really surprised you? That you weren’t expecting at all when you first approached them?
Well, yeah. Probably my favorite story of that was, my audience is a very diverse group of people, but it tends to trend female and it tends to trend young. And so I was in Bryant Park one night, at around 11 o’clock, you might have seen this post. And one of the only people in the park was this older man—60s or 70s—who was sitting at a table on his laptop. And I was like “Ok, this is kind of interesting. I’m going to go take his picture and put him up on the blog.” And so I went up, and I asked him if I could take his photograph, and he said, “What’s this for?” I said, “I run a site called Humans of New York,” and then he flipped around his computer and he’d been looking at the site. So that was a really cool experience for me.
I noticed in several of your stories you mentioned running into people that you had photographed days or weeks before. Is there anybody that you’ve consciously kept in touch with?
You guys love that question! When I say you guys I mean journalists. I don’t know why that is of such interest to people because I never really think about it. You know, I’ve got my friends. I guess there are some people that I’ve kind of become pretty good friends with or acquaintances with, just a small amount of people. But honestly, I’m so singularly focused on Humans of New York. It’s such a large undertaking for one person to be doing that I don’t spend a ton of time socializing. I spend time with my girlfriend. I spend time with my close friends that I’ve known for a long time that live in New York, but other than that I don’t go out to many events or things like that. I’m pretty singularly focused on my work.
Have you ever found yourself in a dicey situation while looking for new subjects?
You know, it happened more in the early days, because in the early days I was still snapping candid shots. And the candid shots are the ones that really piss people off. If you ask somebody for their photo, the most that will happen is they’ll be rude or annoyed. Now, if somebody looks up and you’re taking their photo without having asked, then they can get angry. So in the very early days, I did some more candid stuff, and a couple times I got screamed at. But recently, no.
Do you have a favorite New York neighborhood? A place where you find that you always hit the jackpot?
I love the parks – whether Central Park, Washington Square [Park], Union [Square Park]. Those are great places because they draw people from all over New York and all over the world. And you have a lot of people that are kind of relaxing, it’s their leisure time, they’re willing to be photographed, they’re willing to talk. I’ve photographed everywhere, but I really like the parks.
You’ve been running this blog for three years now. Do you think that you’ve changed in those three years?
It’s kind of impossible to have thousands of conversations with people in the street about their lives and not evolve in some way, because I’ve absorbed their experiences and learned from their experiences. I find myself now, whenever I’m facing an obstacle in life or having a tough time with anything, my mind tends to throw up a HONY post and be like, oh wait, somebody went through this same thing or somebody talked about this. What are the pros and cons around that? So, I think just through the natural absorption of all these people’s words and wisdom and experiences, I’m sure I’ve grown as a person just through the process of collecting photographs.
Earlier this year you made news when you discovered DKNY was using your photos in a store display without your permission. You eventually resolved the disagreement, but would you ever collaborate with a fashion house or a corporation?
I’ve done commercial work for Amtrak. However, that was branded as Stanton. I stipulated at the very beginning that it was not going to involve Humans of New York, that I wasn’t going to promote it on Humans of New York. So nobody who follows me really even knows that I did it.
I’ve turned down a lot of stuff…I’m not completely averse to any sort of commercial work, but it’s really got to be something that I feel is a force of good in the world.
So are you starting to do other things that are separate from portraits that are branded under Brandon Stanton?
No, not really. I’m not even really attempting to brand myself outside of Humans of New York. I think part of the reason for my success is that I’ve put my ego aside and said I’m not going to put all of my effort into trying to promote myself. I’m going to try to promote my work and am going to try to promote my project. And, honestly, that’s a decision that I made early on that really helped spread Humans of New York.
What’s next for you? I saw on your blog that you’ve done some photographs in Iran lately.
Right, right, I would love to go back to Iran. I would love to do more of that. More travel. I would also like to get into writing more. When I first started Humans of New York, I was writing short stories. There were about 50 of them. And you know they were a great part of the site, but the photography just started growing so fast that I didn’t have time to make them anymore. There are a few things that I would like to get back to and do more, to travel more and dig deeper and write more.
So are you particularly interested in Iran or are you really looking at a lot of other cities?
The reason I love Iran is because I’ve got such a big fan base there now. I’ve got 50,000 Facebook fans inside of Iran, and Facebook is banned in Iran. I think the people who follow Humans of New York the most after New York City is Tehran. I have a really special affection for the Persian people, because they’ve really taken to my work. So that’s the main reason I want to go back to Iran. But yeah, I’d like to go everywhere.
How did you discover that you had so many Iranian followers?
No, no I didn’t have any before I went. They were all the result of my trip. Once I was in Iran, it just started going viral, and it never stopped.
This interview has been edited and condensed.