The Human Behind ‘Humans of New York’

Brandon Stanton has talked with 10,000 strangers and shared their stories with millions of people across the Internet. The 29-year-old photographer and creator of Humans of New York didn’t hesitate to follow an idea and turn it into something meaningful.

Stanton has photographed New Yorkers and visitors of the city since November 2010, developing one of the most dedicated online communities. Humans of New York (HONY) has nearly 1.5 million fans on Facebook, more than 33,000 followers on Twitter and regularly receives several thousand notes for each Tumblr post.


The culmination of Stanton’s efforts is a book set for release on Oct. 15. The book, simply titled Humans of New York, is a compilation of Stanton’s best work, and also includes 75 never-before-seen portraits.

Mashable followed Stanton on his rounds to learn a little bit about the process behind the hugely popular blog and the man — a former bond trader in Chicago — behind the camera.

Mashable: Where did the name Humans of New York come from? Were there any other names you considered?

Stanton: I really wasn’t throwing around any other names. Humans of New York wasn’t the result of a fully finished idea that I thought of and then executed; it was an evolution. There were hundreds of tiny evolutions that came from me loving photography.

I was traveling around different cities just doing photography and I was naming my collections of photos on my personal Facebook page after my first impressions of each city I visited. Philadelphia was “Bricks and Flags,” Pittsburgh was “Yellow Steel Bridges.” And then I got to New York, and I just remember my first impression was all the people, so I named it “Humans of New York.”

How do you pick such interesting people from a crowded New York City street?

An element is visual, like, “how good of a photo am I going to take” — but a big part of it is, “is that person in a position where I can talk to them?” Now that the blog has become so focused on storytelling, a lot of it is just the accessibility of a person, my ability to sit down and talk with them. I don’t like to pull people out of groups. I don’t like to interview people in front of their friends; they clam up.

You can sense when somebody wants something. It’s all about energy exchange, it’s not about words. That’s what I learned from doing Humans of New York. Somebody’s willingness to let me photograph them, and willingness to tell me a story, has nothing to do with the words I say. It all has to do with the energy I’m giving off, which hopefully is very genuine, very interested energy. It’s just two people having a conversation in the street. I think that’s where genuine content comes from. It’s just two people having a conversation in the street. I think that’s where genuine content comes from.

You speak to a lot of people every day. How often do they just say no?

I think I’ve gotten it up to about a little over two-thirds that say yes now. I think that’s about as high as I’m gonna get it. The fact that two out of three people will let me photograph them and find out a little bit about them on the streets of New York still kind of amazes me. I don’t think I’m gonna be able to tip that scale much more.

You were a bond trader in Chicago before you became a photographer. Did you have any hesitancy about leaving the structured life behind?

I’m not much of a hesitater in general and I get very very obsessed with things. By the time I lost my job, I’d already gotten into photography and was really enjoying it. I was very obsessed with bond trading, and then I was very obsessed with photography. So no, very little hesitation there. I’m not a very hesitant person.


Did you ever expect this kind of success — page views and followers in the millions?

I would not have moved to New York — with nothing but two suitcases, not knowing anybody — if I did not believe I was onto something that was a really good idea. I was making projections about Humans of New York, back when I had zero followers, that made all my friends and family roll their eyes. I’d throw out these huge numbers: “One day a million people are gonna be looking at this, trust me.”

And even those wild, wild numbers I was throwing out have just been smashed. So, it’s a good feeling.

What makes the HONY community special?

As a group of people grows, it gets harder and harder to maintain culture.

Right now, Humans of New York is growing at such a rate that at any given time, 50% of our followers have only been following for a few months. That said, compared to other places on the Internet, I think Humans of New York has a very warmhearted, supportive, celebratory tone to it that I’m proud of, and that I’m trying my best to maintain through growth. And I think you can see it through the amount of money that we’ve raised for charity over the course of this past year. I think we’ve raised half a million. It gives you an insight into the nature of these people and the nature of the community being a positive place.


How do you feel about the way your stories impact the people who share them?

I’m very concerned about that, actually. I feel very protective, and very thankful, to the people who allow me to take their photograph.It’s intimidating to put yourself and your story in front of all those people. I’m very pleased that pretty much everyone I talk to says that it was a positive experience and that it was liberating or that it was very interesting to have their story impact so many people.

Tell us how your book, which hits shelves Oct. 15, came about.

Any time you’re a content producer and you start to get a following and a lot of content, a book seems like a logical next step. It was in the back of my mind: “One day I’m going to organize the best of what I’ve got so far and I’m going to make a book.” It was a pretty thoughtful step. It didn’t just fall in my lap. I found an agent, we talked to publishers, and we found one who wanted to do what we wanted to do. We signed a deal and here we are, a year later.


Would you ever write a book outside of a compilation of HONY posts?

Yeah! I really don’t want to just churn out Humans of New York, Humans of New York 2, 3, 4. I want each one to represent something unto itself that is not represented in a previous book. And I think that one answer to that is to have a lot more writing in the next one. I started with writing. There’s like 30 or 40 short stories on the Humans of New York site. I would like to go back to writing more.


Now, let’s turn one of your own questions back on you. If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?

It went from photography to pictures of people; from pictures of people to portraits of people; from portraits of people to captions with the photograph. It went from captions to stories to where it is, fully formed, today — which is these very deep interactions with strangers on the streets.

Now, if I had waited until I had that idea to move here and just start, Humans of New York wouldn’t exist. It all emerged from a love of photography and a focus on the work, not a focus on this fully formed idea. So my advice would be, don’t wait for perfect. Don’t wait for something to be fully formed in your head to start on it. Just start, and then work it out as you go.


Final question: Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized New Yorkers or one New Yorker-sized duck?

Yeah, I’ve thought about that. It’s the duck-sized New Yorkers. Then all of your injuries are going to be located on the lower half of your body. There’s not many vitals you’ve got there. You got a giant, New Yorker-sized duck, you’re threatened by that one fatal strike. There’s gonna be a lot of pain, with the smaller ones, but you’ll be able to dispatch them without actually having your life threatened.

Images: Mashable; Humans of New York