The Man Behind Humans of New York and His Contagious Curiosity
Brandon Stanton’s natural curiosity has helped him illuminate the lives of 10,000 people from all around the world. Now, he opens up to tell the story of the man behind the camera.
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In August, Brandon Stanton found himself far from the humans he profiles in New York City. While snorkelling through the clear blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles away in Hawaii, the acclaimed photographer behind the popular blog and book series Humans of New York (HONY) still couldn’t help himself from observing life going on around him – in this case, schools of colourful fish.
“I’ve always liked searching for things,” he says, recalling a childhood joy of finding fireflies and receiving a bug-catching kit for Christmas. “When I was at the beach as a kid, and everyone else was swimming in the water, I was looking for fish and shells.”
It didn’t take too long for Stanton to find himself back at his laptop. Within two days, still in Hawaii, he would share portraits of Mark and Carol, a husband and wife who lost two Army-enlisted sons – one to suicide and the other to violence in Iraq – and how the two have dedicated their lives to encourage young people to get help with depression.
In six instalments featuring photos and text, Stanton presented their story to his audience of nearly 18 million followers on Facebook, and another 6 million on Instagram.
These labour-intensive posts are part of Invisible Wounds, Brandon’s ongoing series that focuses on American veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many with PTSD. Between documenting, fact checking and editing, a single post can require 15 hours of his work. It’s no wonder a trip to Hawaii was needed.
A Portrait Within a Portrait
“Every image [a photographer] sees, every photograph he takes, becomes in a sense a self-portrait,” wrote the acclaimed documentary photographer Dorothea Lange in 1952.
Viewed through the lens of more than 10,000 Humans of New York street portraits and through several series preceding Invisible Wounds, Brandon Stanton contains multitudes.
Since 2010, Stanton, 32, has pursued his joy of discovery by roaming the streets around him with his camera and looking for moments to photograph, mostly throughout New York.
His documentation of those fleeting glimpses – a smiling girl and her boombox on brown stone steps, Big Bird text messaging in Times Square or a matador in full regalia holding red satin over an apartment balcony – fill two best-selling books, Humans of New York and Humans of New York: Stories. They also led Time magazine, in 2013, to name Brandon one of the “30 people under 30 changing the world”.
But his journeys have more recently taken him far from the concrete jungle of New York City to more than 20 countries.
In the series Pediatric Cancer earlier this year, Stanton featured images and stories from the Paediatrics Department of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. For Inmate Stories, he interviewed federal prisoners in 2015. In Syrian-American, he focuses on resettling refugee families, and for Refugee Stories, he travelled to Greece, Hungary, Croatia and Austria.
Last year, as a result of his documentary work, Stanton, who grew up in Marietta, a suburb of Atlanta, travelled with a 13-year-old, Vidal Chastanet, and the boy’s school principal, Nadia Lopez, from their crime-ridden Brooklyn neighbourhood to an Oval Office meeting with President Obama. By featuring Chastanet and his appreciation of Lopez on Humans of New York, and by leading a fund-raising campaign of $1 million for their school, Stanton opened the doors that led them to the Oval Office meeting.
“The main driver for HONY’s growth is our curiosity to know the truth of people we pass on the street.”
Curiosity as an Agent for Change
Stanton’s storytelling quest is especially fulfilling in contrast to his earlier career as a bond trader in Chicago, where he spent countless hours sitting at a computer obsessing over financial markets. He would lose that job in 2010, which was just the push he needed to move to New York and pursue his real passion for photography.
In his early days as a self-taught photographer, Stanton operated as if on a visual treasure hunt, searching for images only. Only later, at first by briefly quoting his subjects and then by giving them more voice through in-depth interviews, did he become acquainted with his own desire to understand strangers.
“I learned that I’m a good interviewer,” he says. “It started out naturally, just having conversations with people and learning to tell their stories as well as possible. But HONY started growing exponentially when I began asking questions and sharing the answers with my audience. The main driver for HONY’s growth is our curiosity to know the truth of people we pass on the street.”
Listening for the Spark
While Stanton considers himself more tinkerer than sage, and his laboratory is more random than controlled, his process of presence, observance, close listening and following each thread of curiosity can apply to any interaction or relationship.
Through time and practice, he has learned to distinguish the elements that make for a compelling story. When his ears perk up during conversation with a subject, he types notes into his phone, fine-tuning the narrative after the fact.
The concentration required for conversations, lasting up to two hours on the street for a single portrait, can be simultaneously exhausting and energising.
“I want to find images, motifs and vignettes in a person’s life that will communicate their experience to a large group of people,” he says. While some supporters say that his work connects humanity by dignifying individuals and revealing common threads, a handful of critics view it as reductionist or reinforcing of caricatured stereotypes. Stanton takes that criticism as an opportunity to ask himself questions about the accuracy and quality of his representations.
“Every single one has my email address,” he says of his 10,000 subjects. “And every person has the opportunity to have their picture taken down. Maybe a handful of people in six years of work have exercised that opportunity. In some cases it was because the audience was bigger than they realised.”
In order to maintain focus, Stanton insists on straightforward principles informing his approach, worrying about the subtle trap of assigning moral values such as benevolence or unity to his work. “By simply focusing on the craft of it, I get my own viewpoint out of the way,” he says. “I ground myself in that very purposely.”
When Curiosity Spreads
After immersing oneself in Humans of New York photos and stories, it’s easy to perceive the world as if through its lens. This contagion of viewer response – also prevalent among online reactions to the powerful visions of his New York City peers Amy Touchette and Daniel Arnold, among other street photographers – might prove to be a unifying and empathetic force originating on social media and spilling into other aspects of life. In his own experience, Stanton says, perspective afforded by his visual and verbal portraits has wiped out internal barriers that may have existed previously.
“It brings deeper context to every interaction that you have,” he says. “Every time a person is rude to you on the underground, every time a person looks depressed or happy – having listened to so many people’s stories creates a tendency to push the horizon beyond that immediate moment.”
In the case of potential conflict with a stranger on the street, an experience familiar to most New Yorkers, he now pushes back on any immediate reaction, asking himself often unanswerable questions: Why is this person angry? Why does he or she have no ability to handle stress? What happened? Owning this lack of knowing forces a degree of open-mindedness. That, in turn, brings a certain degree of surrender and resilience to city living.
And yet, Stanton does not always encounter a charmed world. “A tough day is when I spend a lot of time with someone who agreed to be interviewed but isn’t comfortable going beyond generalities to reveal details of their life,” he says. “Or when I approach people and get rejected a lot, which still happens.”
While the focus of his next series is pending, Stanton’s near future will definitely include more travel. “I’ve got an agreement with my publisher to travel to about a hundred countries to make a book,” he says. Previously he has documented daily life in Pakistan and Iran, among other countries portrayed in the West largely through negative headlines.
While resistant to being characterised as a mission-driven activist, Stanton will admit to a lifelong motivating impulse toward curiosity.
“If HONY has a utility,” he says, with a head still clear from underwater exploration, “it is to provide a balance to the negative stigma applied to certain groups of people – people with negative stigmas attached to them, people whose stories need to be told. It’s most palliative among populations who are feared. That’s where I’m drawn.”
5 Books on Brandon Stanton’s Reading List
This spiritual classic, first published in 1923, contains 28 searching and poetic essays by Lebanese-American mystic Kahlil Gibran.
The Little Prince
First published in 1943, this fable written and illustrated by French poet-aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry acknowledges universal questions of childhood with humour and tender honesty.
Love in the Time of Cholera
In this lyrical novel spanning a love story of more than 50 years, Nobel Prize winner García Márquez illuminates the magic of everyday life.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Searching for meaning after the death of his father in the terrorist attacks of September 11, nine-year-old narrator Oskar Schell goes on a quest through New York City in this 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer.
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
This influential début book by New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell combines pop psychology with sociology to illuminate major impacts made possible by small shifts in fields from policing to retail sales.