In 10,000 Snaps Of The Shutter, A 'Photographic Census' Of A City
What would you do if a stranger stopped you on the street, asked to take your picture and asked to hear your story?
For the past five years, photographer Brandon Stanton has been doing exactly that — on the streets of New York, no less — and thousands of people have said yes. Stanton has been not only collecting their stories and images, but also sharing them on his blog, Humans of New York.
That blog — and other associated projects — have picked up millions of followers and a few book deals. His first book based on the project was published just over two years ago; now, he's publishing a second collection, called Humans of New York: Stories.
But it wasn't such a sure thing when Stanton got started.
"I was working in finance in Chicago, and I lost my job. I just kind of made the decision that I was going to spend the next period of my life thinking not about money, but about how I spent my time," Stanton tells NPR's Michel Martin.
"I loved taking photographs at the time, and I struck upon this kind of crazy idea that I was going to go to New York and stop 10,000 people on the streets and take their portrait, and create kind of a photographic census of the city."
So, he got started. And it wasn't easy.
"I was terrified at first," he recalls. "But over time, you know, I realized it's not really about what you say when you approach a stranger, it's all about the energy that you're giving off."
On the challenges of approaching strangers
The key is to be comfortable with the fact that some people are going to turn you down no matter what. It's the rejection that is hard. It's not the interviewing that's hard, it's not the photography that's hard; it's approaching people all day long, and having a good portion of those people reject you and some of them be rude.
That is why the work can be psychologically draining. But I'm used to it now.
On how he decides whom he wants to talk to
Randomness is the key word there: I'm normally just looking for somebody that looks like they're approachable.
The interviews have gotten much longer with Humans of New York. When I was first starting, I was just photographing people. And then I went to just including a quote or two. Now, when I'm approaching somebody on the street, I'm spending about 30 to 45 minutes with them, often. And so when I'm looking for somebody on the street, I'm looking for someone who's not with friends, someone who's not in a hurry. A lot of times it's somebody sitting on a bench or leaning against a wall, and other than that, there is no other criteria.
It's completely random. And I think that that is what leads to a diversity of stories.
On one of his favorite stories
There was an Egyptian man who was famous for having climbed the tallest mountain on every continent. He told me the story of how he met this woman who he traveled with and eventually got married with and fell in love and then they had their first child. And she passed away while giving birth to their first child.
The story he told me, you know, was just very, very tragic — and, superimposed over these exploits that this man had gone through, so many physical exploits that he was known for. And then his greatest challenge was something that was much more emotional.
I've become very good friends with this man, and it was one of the most powerful stories that I've ever told on Humans of New York. ...
I think what Humans of New York does is highlights maybe the other tones of our lives that people aren't so willing to express.
There are tons of kids in there [on the blog], and there's tons of happy stories, but you know, for me, it's ... why do the sad stories kind of stand out to me? I think it's because so much of the storytelling on social media is self-directed, and it serves to highlight all the good stuff that's going on in our lives: Look at my marriage, look at my car, look at my house, look at my kids, look at my job. And it's all so self-promotional and happy.
You know, I think what Humans of New York does is highlights maybe the other tones of our lives that people aren't so willing to express, or tragedy that they might not have told anybody else. Then, there's somebody in my audience that's reading that and says, "You know what, I'm going through that exact same thing, and I was afraid to talk about it also."
Those are the stories I feel proudest about.
On why he thinks people want to talk to him
I think that if you ask with a genuine interest and a genuine curiosity and a level of compassion, there's very little that someone won't share with you. I think that even though some of the things on Humans of New York are kind of very personal and very revealing, I think the discomfort with sharing that tends to be overridden by the appreciation of being able to distill the experience of your life into a story and share it with other people.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.