Humans of New York: Art in Your Pocket
A wall-to-wall array of diverse-looking tiles overwhelms visitors to humansofnewyork.com. Such is the in-your-face nature of Brandon Stanton’s unique photographic project, Humans of New York (HONY). HONY seems to be everywhere, and you can’t escape it. He has recently returned from a ten-country world tour, in partnership with the United Nations, to raise awareness for the UN’s “Millenium Development Goals,” which include universal primary education, environmental sustainability, eradicating extreme poverty, and fighting disease. The HONY World Tour has put a new spotlight on Stanton and his project, and the comments that flood his Facebook page credit him with displaying the human side to people hitherto thought of only as “the poor” or “refugees.” The photographs from the tour highlight the problems of humans, people like us, as opposed to the problems of any region, country, or religion in particular.
Some of the stories are unimaginably heartbreaking; others are incredibly relatable.
Humans of New York has really come a long way. It began in 2010, with the retrospectively limited goal of photographing 10,000 random New Yorkers. Stanton had a creative blog idea of displaying all the portraits on a map of New York, such that each neighborhood could be clicked on to reveal the people who live there—a mini photographic census. Nearly four years later, he has crossed the halfway mark. But much more significant is the growth of HONY from a mere project to a fulfilling journey. As he puts it himself, “HONY’s evolved so much. It used to be a photography blog. I can’t call it that any more. It’s a storytelling blog” (Harpaz).
Somewhere along the way, he gave up trying to choose or sort his subjects by area, and began wandering randomly until he found someone interesting. He follows-up the photo session with a quick interview, from which he picks out a point or two to include as a caption. His portraits became as much, if not more, about the captions than about the photos themselves.
A lot of the quality in my content comes from the caption. The most popular photos are, meh, average. I messed them up. But then afterwards I’ll be having a conversation with a person and they’ll give me a great line. A great quote can really carry a bad photo. (Groat)
He estimates that he walks 1 mile per subject, and averages 6 miles per day, passing 1000 people before taking a picture. It leaves one to wonder why. Why does Stanton choose to devote so much time to work that doesn’t pay? (Or at least it didn’t pay until last year, when he became a New York Times bestselling author with Humans of New York, the book, and Little Humans, which came out this month.)
Educated at the University of Georgia, Stanton moved to Chicago with a degree in history, and worked as a stockbroker. He was fired during the recession for, as he calls it, “taking too many risks.” Job gone, but risk-taking nature quite intact, he moved to New York with his camera, no formal technical training in photography, a month’s worth of living expenses, and not much else. In a situation wherein most people would scramble to try and get a secure job, Stanton did the exact opposite. Enacting any mother’s worst nighmare, he abandoned all caution and wandered the streets of an unknown city, talking to strangers. Now that people recognize him, his work is somewhat easier; but when he first began, getting potential subjects to agree was a difficult task.
There are lots of street portraits out there, but they’re filled with the young fashionable demographic. Those people never turn me down because those people all want to be photographed. Where it gets trickier is venturing into the demographics where people aren’t walking out the door expecting to be photographed. That’s what makes this photography difficult—dealing with the human element. Rejection just flows off me now (Groat).
A recent photo shows how far he has come since his early days. Taken in April of this year, it depicts a mother and her twenty-something daughter standing on a sidewalk, smiling ear to ear. The story of their encounter, as told by Stanton:
Stanton is a stout believer that achievement requires hard work and diligence. And diligent he is. In his own words, “With so many people competing for attention—everybody has a digital camera, everybody has a Tumblr account—you’ve got to be willing to do a lion’s share of the work before anybody notices you.” He says, when he started, he knew he really loved taking pictures, but didn’t really know where his ideas would take him (Groat). Occasionally selling prints of his portraits to get by, and sometimes even eating cat food, he continued doing something that no one who cared at all about him approved of. His risk-taking nature along with his disillusionment with his chosen career path, seems to have driven him down this new, unpaved road. Taking risks didn’t work in the financial market, but Stanton’s solution to that wasn’t to change himself. Instead, he changed his environment to one where anything goes. Taking risks is the only way forward in a direction no one has yet thought to take.
Even his work has a palpable sense of disorder. Portraits can pop up in my News Feed at anytime of day or night, and can feature any subject from anywhere in New York City. The disorganization mirrors the state of the city itself. There are some themes Stanton often returns to, like “Today in Microfashion,” featuring young children dressed uniquely or colorfully.
Photos of tattoos, unique hairstyles, and dancers in action are other mainstays.
However, the photos with the most likes are often the unexpected ones. A memorable favorite is a picture he took while visiting Austin last year for SXSW (South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival). It depicts a rugged-looking middle-aged man relaxing on a chair in the night-time city lights, smoking a cigarette. His pink skin sets his multiple dark tattoos and yellow blonde hair in sharply contrasting focus.
Such an unexpectedly sweet end to a misleadingly unremarkable beginning strangely relates back to Stanton’s own struggles. His story began with a camera, ambition, uncertain end-goals, and a lack of technical skills, none of which set him apart from anyone else running a photoblog. But those things in combination, along with what he’s done with them over the years, have turned his story sweetly remarkable, and all the more so for its unanticipated trajectory.
With nearly 4 million followers on Facebook and Tumblr, and countless flattering spoofs like Humans of Paris, Humans of London, Humans of Los Angeles, and even Humans of NYU, Stanton’s efforts are finally paying off; and more so than he had ever imagined. He has been covered by various publications and news programs ranging from The Wall Street Journal and The Village Voice to CBS News and New York 1.
As with any artist, not all the attention is positive though. He has been accused of painting too rosy a picture of New York by focusing heavily on little kids and pets, as opposed to the true, grittier inhabitants of the city. Outer borough residents criticize him for spending too much time in Manhattan, making outer borough residents such as myself feel ignored. His own fans rightly called him out for insensitivity when he captioned a photo of a young boy learning baseball with a ball so big he couldn’t miss, “pansy.” He later apologized, and pulled down that particular photo. But if bad publicity is impossible to avoid as an artist, Stanton has done a great job of minimizing it. Perhaps it is the unconventional nature of his presentation that leaves less room overall for negative criticism. His art goes straight to his audience; they can pull it up on their PC while at work, it pops up in their newsfeed as they scroll through social media, and most of his fans have the not-so-secret desire of being “chosen” to be a part of his art. This is what ultimately sets him apart. His art is his audience, and his audience is his art.
He speaks cautiously about not wanting to be “jaded,” about reflecting on whether he is now less sensitive to the ordinary moment as a possibly interesting subject, than he was when he first started (Groat). It reminds me of the trajectory of most Facebookers; at first any moment seems worthy of sharing as a status, but we gradually become more selective about what might be interesting enough to post. Stanton actively tries not to change his standards for what makes a great portrait. But this certainly doesn’t mean he hasn’t grown or improved over the years. And he isn’t unaware of such changes either. “Before, I was visually responding to the street. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. Now I look for someone sitting alone. I look for people who are approachable” (Harpaz). And not everyone is thrilled about being approached. One of his photos features the back of one such man in the W 4th Street subway station:
When he started out, Stanton wasn’t even asking for permission from his subjects. It’s something he might possibly get away with now, but back when he was still unknown, he was even threatened and cursed at for his actions (Stanton, A Chat). Now that he always asks first, Stanton makes his subjects subconsciously aware of the camera, and even when they don’t deliberately pose, he can’t get the same shot that initially caught his eye and made him walk over. Thus, part of the evolution of HONY is a loss of candidness. While somewhat regrettable, I see it as a necessary sacrifice for the sake of expanding a local art project to global proportions.
He has become so popular in a fairly short time span, and he certainly hasn’t escaped the notice of various companies looking to cash in on the latest phenomenon. In 2013, DKNY offered to purchase 300 of Stanton’s photos for $15,000 to use in marketing campaigns. An industry friend advised him that $50 per photo wasn’t nearly enough from a company with hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue. So he asked for more money. They turned him down. A few months later, a fan in Bangkok discovered DKNY using Stanton’s photos in their window display. Stanton immediately took to his home turf to protest. On his Facebook page, he called out DKNY for the unfairness, and asked them to donate $100,000 to the Bedford-Stuyvesant YMCA for having used his work without his permission. He asked his followers and fans to reblog his request to drive the point home to DKNY. The company eventually claimed an honest mistake, and donated $25,000 (Stanton, humansofnewyork.com). This one example shows the potential Stanton has to have a palpable impact on our society. He has a direct reach to his audience, which coupled with his use of social media and far-reaching success, makes Stanton fairly unique. His art is not only popular among his fans, but it also catches the eye of average folks who stumble upon his photos when their Facebook friends like them. Pretty soon, the friends-of-followers become followers themselves.
And this was much before the life-changing world tour. The tour, with the peaceful mission of bringing to light some fundamental problems, succeeded in putting a human face on what we in the west tend to distantly think of as statistics. The portraits of people around the world showed us to feel empathy for the human beings who are suffering, regardless of who should be blamed for the conflicts they find themselves caught in.
Stanton’s forte is elevation of regular people to portrait-worthy subjects of art. This is what defines his reach and appeal, which are uniquely his own. Even when photographing extraordinary subjects like the above monk, Stanton subtly brings out their “regular guy” side. His reach and appeal in turn define his place in New York art and culture, and in the world. Through his art, he has provided New Yorkers with a sense of community; anyone who walks down a street becomes part of this community that is Stanton’s canvas. HONY—the art on that canvas—is somewhat of a staple among New Yorkers. If they see an approaching muscular, six-foot-four-inch man dressed casually in a T-shirt and cargo pants, wearing his baseball cap backward, carrying a camera and a hopeful smile, they aren’t alarmed. Quite the contrary, it’s like meeting a celebrity.
Like the mother and daughter who couldn’t believe their luck, his subjects relish the opportunity to speak to him. Perhaps sometimes, it’s even like meeting an old friend after a long time. Like the gentleman in Austin, they tell him their stories. They share with him their most personal moments, even allowing him to show them to the world. Even people in refugee camps and remote villages, who aren’t familiar with his work open up to him. To me this speaks volumes about how much these people trust Stanton, trust that he will present their sensitive feelings in the most positive way, and trust that other New Yorkers will understand their story. The community of his canvas is also a community of trust. Stanton was able to win this personal trust through his art, gradually, over the course of building his body of work. Notably, he was able to do it in a city infamous for being impersonal. And to think, none of it would have been if someone hadn’t thought to fire a risk-taker.
Groat, Jon. “Video Profile: Photographing the ‘Humans of New York’.” 1 August 2012. New York Magazine. Article. 30 March 2014.
Harpaz, Beth J. “Popular Humans of New York Photoblog Now a Book.” 11 October 2013. Associated Press. Article. 28 March 2014.
Stanton, Brandon. humansofnewyork.com. New York, 25 February 2014. Blog.
Stanton, Brandon. “Brandon Stanton: A Chat with a Human Photographer in New York Chris Gampat.” Explora B&H, 2013. Interview.
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