“If any of you drove by the Brooklyn Navy Yards at 6pm last night, you may have seen a grown man sobbing in an empty parking lot,” wrote Brandon Stanton on his blog last week after his book Humans of New York debuted at No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. “It completely blindsided me… It was a miracle.”
When Stanton began photographing strangers on the streets of New York four years ago, he never planned for the project to become a blog, let alone a book. Having just lost his job as a bond trader in Chicago (which he landed through a friend who saw trading potential in Stanton’s decision to bet a $3,000 student loan on Obama winning the 2008 election), he took the opportunity to travel and focus on photography, his hobby. His travels came to an end in New York when he realised he’d found a project. “I saw all these people; this diversity, this density, and New York was perfectly suited to the type of street photography I’d fallen into.”
After much persuasion from a friend, Stanton created Facebook and Tumblr pages to make his photographs public. Within months his fan base numbered hundreds of thousands – “just because they wanted to see two or three photos of people that I’d taken on the streets every day”. Today, Stanton has more than 1.6 million Facebook followers.
He says humansofnewyork.com is “more of a storytelling blog than a photography blog”, and that the most interesting stories “tend to revolve around very strong emotions, like happiness or sadness or fear”. Asking questions such as “What is your greatest struggle right now?” and “If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would you say?”, Stanton elicits quirky and poignant responses from complete strangers. It is this that makes his storytelling so compelling.
A self-professed obsessive (“Hey there. I’m Brandon. I get really passionate about things,” he introduces himself on the blog), Stanton spends two hours every day (“I do stress that I don’t take days off”) wandering the streets, and about two in three people he approaches agree to be photographed. He comes from Georgia, and says the sheer number of people he talks to in the city gives New York “a small-town feel – I’m always seeing people that I’ve photographed”.
Nevertheless, a few days after reaching the top of the charts, he “went out photographing and got rejected about 10 times in a row. It was the worst night of photography that I’ve had in a long time,” he recalls, laughing.
“New York is a giant place and no matter how big you get, there’s still going to be a ton of people who haven’t heard of you.”
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