Brandon Stanton: A Chat with a Human Photographer in New York

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Brandon Stanton left his old job in Chicago in order to pursue his artistic dream to be a photographer. With a bit of savings, he packed up and headed to New York, and started a documentary project to create a photographic census of nearly every New Yorker. The project, "Humans of New York," has been very successful online, with an active blog, and an even more active facebook page.

Brandon had a few spare minutes to sit down and chat with us about the project, and the humans he photographs.


B&H Photo: You used to be a bond trader in Chicago, and then you became a photographer. From where did you get the inspiration to do a project like this? Surely doing a photographic census of NYC is no easy task.

Brandon: The idea sprang organically out of a love of photography. I started out just taking thousands of photos on the street. Looking at my photos, I decided that my street portraits were the most compelling, so I specialized. The photographic census arose as an idea to organize my New York street portraits. I had 600 of them before I even had the idea. So the work did not follow the idea—the idea followed the work.

  

B&H Photo: Your blog sometimes talks about some tense moments that you’ve had when photographing people. Have you ever been in any real danger at all while doing this?

Brandon: I've only been threatened once. And that was back when I wasn't asking permission. Other than that, there've been a few rude people, a few people who used expletives, but nobody who has physically threatened me. And when you consider that I've stopped 10,000 strangers all over New York, that's a pretty incredible statistic.  

B&H Photo: In the video promoting the project, you talk about how you used to be shy about asking people for their photos, and you would, instead, just take them while in public. But now you ask for them. How was that transition for you, mentally?

      

Brandon: It's quite a paradox. Many photographers believe that it is LESS stressful if you don't ask permission, because you avoid human contact. But by asking, you avoid those few instances where people get REALLY mad because they catch you photographing them without their permission. I got chased down the street a couple times. I actually made the change to AVOID stress. I've moved back into documentary photography in a few rare instances, however. Like when there is a moment I don't want to disturb.  

B&H Photo: What tips could you offer to people that are too nervous to ask for street photography portraits?

Brandon: Start by starting. I was nervous for the first few months. You really have to earn your comfort by repeatedly putting yourself in uncomfortable situations. Accept the fact that many people are going to say "no," and don't let rejection bother you. Other than that—speak softly, and smile. 

          

B&H Photo: Your facebook page receives lots more updates than the actual website. Why is that?

Brandon: I started the facebook page as an appendage to the website, but the HONY community naturally migrated there. It became the place for discussion, and really drove the blog's growth. Instead of fighting the trend, I encouraged it, and my audience has really grown as a result. As long as facebook doesn't make any drastic changes to its format, I have no problem with the FB page being central. 

B&H Photo: The number of portraits you take has to vary from day to day. Plus, it seems like the conversations you have go on for quite a while. With that said, how many do you really end up taking each day?

              

Brandon: Obviously, as I take more portraits and improve as a photographer, I become more selective. I'm still a very heavy shooter. But when I was first starting, I'd take several hundred shots a day. That's how I learned. By taking thousands of photos—and making thousands of mistakes. I think I took 100,000 photos during my first year of doing street portraits. Now, I take three or four shots of each subject—maybe six or seven subjects a day.  

B&H Photo: Because you’re shooting so much, what’s your post-production process?

Brandon: Very minimal. A little Lightroom auto-toning, that's about it. From the beginning, I've wanted to keep the focus on the people. I didn't want to get too bogged down with flawless focus, white balance, and aperture. I think a certain paralysis can result from juggling too many technical considerations in your mind.  

B&H Photo: Tell us about the gear you use.

Brandon: Canon EOS 7D. Canon 50mm f1.2 lens. That's it. All from B&H, of course.  

B&H Photo: This project has to take a lot of time. What else do you do besides photographing NYC’s population?

                      

Brandon: Very little, actually. I had a little savings when I left Chicago, and I live a very simple lifestyle. It's gotten to the point where I am going to have to raise some funds to allow me to continue, but I don't need much. I think I've been lucky to build a big enough following that will allow me to focus chiefly on HONY. 

B&H Photo: What’s next for you?

Brandon: Photographing strangers on the streets of New York City. It's what I love.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Photo, Video, Pro Audio

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Hi Chris,

I really enjoy your excellent blog and check in on it regularly.  Lately though I've been thinking 'when is he going to write about a female photographer'...?   

Helen wrote:

Hi Chris,

I really enjoy your excellent blog and check in on it regularly.  Lately though I've been thinking 'when is he going to write about a female photographer'...?   

Hi Helen,

We're working on a series where we interview a slew of photographers from the PDN 30 Photographers to Watch list. And some of them are female. In fact, a post came back from Copy Editing just last night and will be published soon.

I hope you look out for it and enjoy it.

Also, thank you kindly for the words of support.