How Humans of New York Got Started
November 18 2015 · Mark Mann
Like most successful ventures, Humans of New York started when someone took a risk. Brandon Stanton, who runs the blog by himself, launched the project after losing his job as a bond trader in Chicago in 2010.
“Instead of updating my resume and looking for a similar job, I decided to forget about money and have a go at something I truly enjoyed,” he wrote of the experience several years later.
Realizing that time is more valuable than money, Stanton chose to follow his newly discovered passion for photography and spend his days taking street portraits, even though he’d only recently bought his first DSLR camera. He might be penniless, but at least he’d be happy.
While other aspects of Humans of New York—or HONY, as Stanton calls it—have changed significantly over the years, that decision to prioritize passion over profit has remained consistent. Stanton has turned down nearly every corporate offer (he endorses Facebook, because he credits the service with finding his audience), rather than cash out. The approach has paid off: in fans, in worldwide acclaim, and in meaningful impact on other people’s lives, like the millions of dollars he’s raised for impoverished schools in Brooklyn, for victims of Hurricane Sandy, for bonded laborers in Pakistan, and more. (With two best-selling books and plenty of speaking engagements, Stanton now does pretty well for himself too.) Not that his idealism helped him much at first.
“The early days were very tough,” he writes. “Six months in—I was broke, I’d taken thousands of portraits, I didn’t know anyone in New York, nobody was paying attention. Every time I talk about it in a speech I start crying. I’d been working on HONY everyday, non-stop, for a year before it got any traction at all.”
By his own account, Stanton’s willingness to live cheaply mainly just liberated him to work maniacally hard on HONY. Whether passionate or pathological, he’s clearly committed. (It’s in his nature to fixate: “At some time in my life, I’ve been obsessed or borderline-obsessed with saltwater aquariums, the baritone euphonium, reading, piano, filming, financial markets, New York City, and photography,” he writes in his bio.) From the beginning, he’s walked for hours and snapped thousands of pictures every day, in all seasons, and in every borough.
While passion set the path, tolerance of hardship made it possible, and intense daily hustle launched him on his way, it was Stanton’s openness to change that made HONY thrive after the first year of struggle. “The Humans of New York that is now successful and big looks nothing like the Humans of New York that I set out to do, and that I committed my life to,” he told the Harvard University Institute of Politics in February, 2015.
In the beginning, Stanton’s focus was photography. Though he had no professional training, he set out to create an exhaustive catalogue of New York City’s inhabitants: “I was going to take 10,000 portraits and plot them on an interactive map of the city.” Since then, he’s far exceeded that original goal, but his methods and objectives have changed. As Stanton realized that the quality of the posts was coming from the humans in the pictures, not the pictures themselves, the project stopped being about street portraiture in New York, and became about telling people’s stories.
Before he could find those stories, Stanton first had to learn how to walk up to strangers and ask to take their picture. “At first, I wouldn’t ask anybody,” he once said in an interview. “I couldn’t imagine that anybody would let me take their photo, so I would just walk up and snap and hope they wouldn’t see.” They often did, and few appreciated the sneaky approach, so finally he just started asking people directly. He quickly found that if he was nervous, his subjects were nervous, and as he got calmer, they got calmer, until eventually the whole process became second nature.
Nowadays when Stanton approaches someone for a photograph, he leads with his credentials—the books, the followers—though by this point, many of his subjects recognize him instantly. “I have no shame and no pride when it comes to approaching people on the street,” he says. But mainly he relies on positive energy to make the connection. Though he describes himself as an introvert, his manner is natural and friendly. He wears plain clothes and comes across as a regular guy, even folksy, with his long limbs and goofy laugh, which he offers generously and often.
While most of us would be terrified to walk up to a stranger and ask to take their picture, let alone ask them about their hopes and dreams (and failures and disappointments), Stanton has discovered that the majority of people actually want to be vulnerable. “When I first started, I was amazed that anyone would let a stranger take their picture! Now, I’ve found that there’s very little a person won’t disclose,” he says.
Along with all the followers, HONY has picked up plenty of imitators along the way. What distinguishes Stanton from all the copycats is his ability to push through the first layer of the interview, when people speak their truisms rather than their truths, and draw out the honest revelations that actually matter. “My job is to get past those broad statements,” he says. This is what Stanton’s imitators fail to do, and as a result, their blogs are rife with clichés, self-congratulation, and canned wisdom that risks nothing. The HONY rip-offs—Humans of Sydney, Melbourne, Tehran, Paris, Edinburgh, Ireland, Spain, Seoul, Auckland City, Vilnius, Portland, San Antonio, Singapore, India, Rome, Amsterdam, and more—are generally so uninteresting, they make vivid illustrations of how easily Stanton could have failed. (Felines of New York is pretty wonderful, however.)
Stanton isn’t a skilled interviewer because he asks big questions—How did your life turn out differently than you expected? What do you feel most guilty about? What was the happiest moment of your life?—but because he gives people the space and attention they need to find the real answers. You have to be very present, he says, in order to go to those deep places with people. For this reason, he doesn’t use recorders and notebooks to document the stories, because they might make people self-conscious. Instead, he’s learned to recognize the perfect quote as soon as he hears it, and as soon as the interaction is over, he starts repeating it to himself until he has it memorized. This technique has been surprisingly error-free; he’s received only a handful of corrections out of more than 10,000 stories gathered.
But Stanton’s approach to gathering stories is also more pragmatic than the emotional quality of his work would suggest. “I’m not looking for the meaning of life or the key to happiness or the thread that bonds us all together— I’m looking for a compelling story,” he told the photographer Michael Donovan on his podcast. Stanton has learned through trial and error what people respond to and what they don’t, and he focuses on delivering the nugget that will become a meteor. HONY stories aren’t complex investigations into the social context that shapes the outcomes of peoples’ decisions; they’re bite-sized snippets, devoured in little more time than it takes to click Share.
This business-like attitude to finding the human material that will garner the most attention has prompted strong criticism. Gawker called HONY “a steady stream of clickbait” and “a vanity project.” The New Yorker decried Stanton’s “quick and cavalier consumption of others.” Even simply referring to people as “humans” suggests a detachment, as if it were a report prepared for aliens. It’s playful, but still aloof. In that objectification of others, Stanton presents “a whitewashed image of an earnest, vibrant city,” according to one commentator, who accused HONY of sentimentality, or portraying issues like racism and poverty through the beguiling lens of optimism and positivity, making viewers feel good but distracting them from the reality of systemic oppression.
Most critics of HONY mischaracterize the blog to prove their point, such as by calling it “an endless stream of feel-good, life-affirming photos,” despite the fact that many of the stories are desperately sad or laden with hopelessness. But the early days of HONY reveal that some of these criticisms were once well-placed. Back when it was a photo-blog and not yet a storytelling-blog, Stanton often posted witty commentary on the pictures, and it wasn’t always in good taste, or funny: the beat-up shoes of a homeless person lying on the ground (“The City that Never Sleeps”); an old man and his dog (“Twinsies”); a man with an eye patch (“That’s nothing, you should have seen the other guy”.) When Stanton commented ON his subjects, rather than allowing them to speak for themselves, the effect was de-humanizing. For the first few years, he was like a tourist on safari, reporting on all the weird creatures he’d seen in New York to the folks back home.
In the beginning, Stanton prized uniqueness above all else. He chose only the most flamboyant and oddball characters, especially the homeless and mentally ill, but also the elaborately fashionable and unmistakably foreign. HONY was a megaphone for people who were already trying to draw attention to themselves, who had no way to escape the public gaze, or who refused to assimilate. But as time passed, Stanton developed a subtler taste in humans. His subjects came to look less like psychedelic superheroes, and more like the person next to you on the subway. Ethnic people no longer needed to wear traditional garb in order to make it onto the site, and the disenfranchised no longer needed to perform an entertaining role. Humans started to include mere humans, and as it turned out, they’re all pretty remarkable.
By 2012, Stanton started including more stories that were neither cute, uplifting, or melodramatic. “What’s your greatest struggle right now?” he asks a construction worker in this post. “Just figuring out what I want to do,” the man replied. “Cause it ain’t this.” These simple but raw declarations hit harder than the crazy costumes, and as HONY acquired more depth, it also gathered more fans. In his first year shooting, Stanton gained 3,000 followers. The next year, he had over 300,000. In 2013, he passed the seven-digit mark with a million followers. Today, he has over 15 million, nearly twice the number of people that actually live in New York City. The more Stanton’s subjects feel real—unresolved, self-defeating, heart-broken, scared, resilient, and yes, often silly—the more people want to look at them.
Sometimes Stanton photographs famous people, like Obama (“Who has influenced you the most in your life?” “My mother.”) and Al Pacino. (Oh yeah, and Batman.) But after attending the Met Gala in 2014 and snapping pictures of people like Neil Patrick Harris, Anna Kendrick and Bryan Cranston, Stanton realized that the stars weren’t in line with the spirit of HONY. “What makes HONY different is that it features people who aren’t normally documented,” he told Reddit. (The President of the United States notwithstanding.) Unless, like this woman, the fame is all in the name.
In the five years since he launched the blog, Stanton has celebrated many exceptional achievements with HONY. Like the time he photographed a woman in Lahore, Pakistan who had recently escaped an abusive relationship, but couldn’t find help because she had Hepatitis C. The post was shared more than 38,000 times, and the next day she was welcomed at a charity clinic. Or the time he met a young man named Vidal on the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn, and the encounter led him to raise more then a million dollars for underfunded schools. Or the time he took HONY to Pakistan and Iran—"I always felt that HONY portraits were a really ‘humanizing’ form of art. And I always wondered what it would be like to apply it to a place that had been vilified.".
The other approach that kept him on track was the one thing that remained consistent from the beginning: his attitude toward money. “I’ve said publicly that I don’t want to ‘cash out’ or ‘monetize’ HONY,” he writes. “I like to say it publicly because I want my audience to keep me on mission.” One of the best moves Stanton ever made for HONY was staying on mission in 2013 when the clothing label DKNY used his photos without his permission. Rather than demanding a big settlement, Stanton asked the company to donate $100,000 to the Bed-Stuy YMCA where he exercises. The bid worked—sort of… the company coughed up $25,000—and won HONY the sort of credibility that money can’t by.
Stanton no longer sees HONY as a project, but as a mindset—one that can be taken around the world and serve different humans with different needs in different places. “I’m constantly asking myself how I can be doing a better job at this,” Stanton says. “I feel like HONY is getting better. I’ve certainly matured as a person over the past five years, and I hope the work has matured as well.” What defines that mature mindset is honesty. While the future looks bright for Stanton, his best posts are those that don’t depend on happy endings. As HONY evolves, the blog is becoming as complex as the humans that travel across its pages every day. And that’s astonishing.