Photographer Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York project is exactly what it sounds like — yet, somehow, so much more.For the last three years, photographer Brandon Stanton has walked the streets of New York City asking people if he could take their pictures. Thousands have agreed, and the resulting street portraits turned into the ongoing online collection called Humans of New York (HONY). The site’s hundreds of thousands of fans come to HONY for the photographs, of course, but also for Stanton’s witty captions and for the sense of community the project fosters. In the last year, the HONY audience has raised nearly $500,000 for charitable causes, including relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy and trips to summer camp for kids from Brooklyn. Come October, fans will be able to bring HONY home with them via a book from St. Martin’s Press. American Way caught up with Stanton about capturing singular moments in a city with millions of stories.
AMERICAN WAY: How did you become a photographer?
BRANDON STANTON: I started photographing in Chicago while I was working as a bond trader. It was a weekend hobby. When I lost my job, I decided to see what it would be like to try it full time. I went to a few different cities — Pittsburgh and Philadelphia — and over the course of walking around these places, I noticed that of all the photos I was taking, the ones I took of people were the most unique. So by the time I arrived in New York, I was focusing mainly on photographing people, and in New York, I saw all these people everywhere. I fell into this environment that was perfectly matched to the type of photography I was gravitating toward.
AW: How do people react when you ask to take their picture?
STANTON: Over the course of stopping so many people, you learn little things about the best way to approach a person. What I realized is: It is not really about what you say, it is about the energy you give off. It is really about how calm you are. Usually about two of every three people I ask will say yes, and now there is the added bonus that a lot of people who would have said no have heard of HONY. So that’s starting to help me too.
AW: Do you think New Yorkers react differently than someone in, say, Des Moines, Iowa, might?
STANTON: New York City is itself a patron of the arts. I feel that a lot of New Yorkers have in their moral code an obligation to support the arts. So when they see a young guy coming up and asking for their photograph and he describes himself as an artist, certain types of people do feel an inclination to help.
AW: How would you describe the HONY audience?
STANTON: They are a very friendly group of people. We don’t make fun of people in the pictures, and it is not a snarky website. I feel like mean people generally get bored with HONY and just move on. There is a very warm spirit to the group, and that has allowed us to do some great things in the area of philanthropy.
AW: Do you have a favorite photograph?
STANTON: I took a photograph of an elderly woman recently. I was photographing her because she had a beautiful, colorful umbrella. I asked her, “If you could give one piece of advice, what would it be?” And she said, “Well, I’ll tell you what my husband said when he was dying. I asked him, ‘Moe, how am I going to live without you?’ And he said, ‘Take the love you had for me and spread it around.’ ” I just turned the corner and started crying. It was one of the photographs that moved me the most.
Find Stanton’s Humans of New York (HONY) project at www.humansofnewyork.com