Why on earth would you tell that to a complete stranger? “My dad gave me up to the boys’ home when I was four,” admits a man sitting on the side of the road, his entire life housed in a backpack. “He told me that he was taking me fishing. He got the poles, the bait, everything. I was excited. He said he knew about a new spot. We pulled up to this huge building… I ripped his shirt off his back trying to keep him from leaving, and he drove off without a shirt.”
A little girl, with a giant pink bow almost larger than her head, is wrapped in her mother’s arms. “My husband works in a supermarket and I’m a paralegal. He lives with his aunt and I live with my mother because we can’t afford to live together.”
A white-haired gentleman, decked out in black, stands facing the camera. “When I told my mom that I was going to rehab, she was about to catch a flight to her 40th High School Reunion. I told her, ‘I guess you won’t be bragging about me to your friends.’ She said, ‘Actually, I’ve never been prouder of you.’ “For all the deep and existential thoughts I have when I read a Humans of New York post, this is the one I come back to most: how does one guy get other people to divulge their most intimate thoughts? But as I chat with Brandon Stanton, the man behind the global phenomenon, I suddenly realise why. Having met only moments ago, it feels like I’m catching up with an old friend – cups of tea and comfy clothes notwithstanding. He skips the small talk before I’ve even realised; disarmed by his genuineness.
“I don’t think there’s anything that exceptional about my photography,” says Brandon. “I think it’s more everyday emotions and everyday moments that it captures that have been coupled with extraordinary narratives.” It’s these stories, juxtaposed with Brandon’s simple photography, which define Humans of New York (HONY). More than a photography project or blog, HONY – and its honest representation of the human experience – has become a style in and of itself.
With 20 million fans globally – around two and a half times the population of New York City itself – nothing has changed the face of NYC in recent years more than Brandon Stanton. From the anxious millennials and forever-in-love elderly couples, to workers stuck in a wrong-side-of-the-tracks life and the effervescent simplicity of children (“He likes when I give him hugs” reads the caption to a poor toddler being squashed by an older sibling), after 10,000 photos HONY has simultaneously covered off every social group while still very much scratching the city’s surface.
In today’s posts there was a young woman whose life had crumbled once she reached Harvard (“I learned that I hadn’t formed an identity beyond making people proud of me”) and a man who had dreaded raising children, until he had them (“I just didn’t feel qualified; I couldn’t figure out my own life. How was I supposed to be responsible for someone else’s happiness and sense of self-worth?”). In a world conditioned to small talk, people open up when they’re asked deeper questions about themselves, believes Brandon, because it validates their experiences.
But how does he even get that far? Despite experimenting with the right words to use as an icebreaker in the early days, Brandon focuses on the “feminine” energy he gives off – raising his already high-pitched voice an octave and bending his six-foot-four-inch frame over, he asks for a single photograph, nothing more. From there he tries to start a conversation, sans notebook or recorder, and repeats his caption to himself on his trip home.
“I try to take a very blue-collar approach to Humans of New York,” he says. “I try to focus on how hard I work as opposed to how to get as much value with the least amount of effort.” Moving to NYC in 2010 with his entire life crammed into two suitcases, Brandon treated his hobby as a full-time job, photographing eight hours a day without a day off for an entire year – a work ethic he credits to his grandfather. “I’m all about going out, working every day, not taking days off and working harder than anybody else.
“My grandfather used to run a cemetery, which is a weird thing to do,” laughs Brandon. “He dropped out of school when he was in sixth grade… He was a carpenter his entire life and he just worked his way up, bought some houses and he got the idea that the cemetery business was a good business. He used to take me out there [to his cemetery] every couple of weeks and I’d help him pull the headstones. It’s just like any other work, you forget you’re in a cemetery after a few minutes. My grandfather was a very hardworking guy. He was in his eighties when we were doing this.”
Originally studying history, Brandon landed his first job as a bonds trader in Chicago after a friend spotted him bet US$3000 of his student loans on an Obama presidency. Fired two years later at 26 (but not before he won another US$3000 in an NFL pool that he used to buy his first camera), he set aside three months to try something creative. He began travelling, shooting everything he saw and dumping the images into folders named for his first impressions of a city – Pittsburgh went into ‘Yellow Steel Bridges’, Philadelphia was ‘Bricks and Flags’, and NYC, with its crowded streets, was titled ‘Humans of New York’. Hundreds of photos in, Brandon had a brainwave: he’d photograph 10,000 people and plot their portraits on an interactive map. But when he began including one-line captions, interest soared.
“I learned that I was developing a skill [in] meeting random strangers, telling their stories and making them feel comfortable, therefore the blog evolved along the lines of trying to tell more rich and more detailed and more intimate stories of random individuals. So the interviews grew longer, the storytelling became much more detailed and things just naturally evolved,” he says, adding that the photography evolved to suit – away from the vibrant, colourful characters he initially shot to more everyday people he could easily approach.
“I can’t really be sure what everybody takes out of it. I think a lot of it for people is very personal, they might identify with this story or that story because it parallels things that are going on in their own life,” says Brandon. “But in a broader sense I think there’s a power to seeing a picture of somebody you might walk by on the street and you know nothing about – there’s anonymity to it – while at the same time it’s coupled with a story or a quote that is very intimate.”
Anonymity is often the reason particular photos become iconic. Think the sailor and the nurse, the man in Tiananmen Square, the Vancouver couple lying down kissing in the middle of a riot. This year it was a little boy on the beach, later identified as Aylan Kurdi, who became the face of the Syrian refugee crisis.“To see a dead child was obviously extremely confronting. I’m obviously like you, where I can be moved and affected by these great examples of documentary photography and I can be just as puzzled and baffled about what makes a good photo as you are,” he says, humbly shaking off the notion of being any sort of expert. “I don’t identify primarily as a photographer. I think the photography is almost secondary to the work of storytelling and so I think your insight would be just as good as mine.”
But Brandon hears stories like these – of heartbreak, disappointment and pain – every day. How do they not weigh him down?“I’m a relatively buoyant person,” he says. “I think there’s a sense of enjoyment from both sides of, one, this person telling me their story and, two, me figuring out how to help this person tell their story.”The only time he cried on the job, he says, was when, huddled under an umbrella in the rain, an older woman began talking, “like the narrator of the Titanic”.
“When my husband was dying, I said: ‘Moe, how am I supposed to live without you?’ He told me: ‘Take the love you have for me and spread it around.’” There was also one night in 2013 when his agent called to say his first book, Humans of New York, had topped the New York Times Best Seller List. He turned a corner, sat down in an empty parking lot in the Brooklyn Navy Yards for an hour and just cried.
As easy going as Brandon seems, his first year in NYC – when he knew only two people – was anything but. For six months he slept on a mattress on the floor of a bare-walled room and celebrated Christmas alone. Meals consisted of Cheerios and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, skipping even those at times to get by.
With a US$1200 monthly government allowance barely covering the rent, Brandon had to ask friends and family for a US$300 lifeline on a number of occasions. Six months in, he had tens of thousands of photos but was completely broke and no one was paying attention. It wasn’t until one small Associated Press story in 2011 – when he had just 200 followers – that an audience began to steadily grow.
Fast-forward four years, 20 million followers and now the release of his third book, Humans of New York: Stories and Brandon, who regularly pulls in 500,000 likes per shot (plus comments from Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg and Barack Obama), still lives in the same Brooklyn apartment and laughs about his current struggles “Oh, just paying my bills on time,” he says. “Just all the everyday things of life I’m naturally very bad at and now Humans of New York is so big I’m exponentially worse at it.”
At this point, most creatives would hire employees to lighten the load, but that’s difficult when the key to your success is years of personal experience. “It’s getting more and more difficult [by myself]. Humans of New York is a concept, yes. But it’s also become a brand for a type of work that I’ve learned to do over five years of approaching thousands and thousands and thousands of strangers. So it’s very hard to scale and just say, ‘Oh, anybody can do it,’ because I’ve worked very, very, very hard to develop a sensitivity and a technique of doing this in a way that I think is best. So I think for as long as possible I will work as hard as possible to do as much as I can myself.” But diversifying is definitely on the cards.
“What Humans of New York is to me is telling the stories of strangers on the street. So anywhere that is happening [where] I can do that, Humans of New York goes, so whether that be videos or longer-form writing.” And so he has begun travelling. In 2014, he visited 10 countries on a UN-sponsored photography tour (paying his own way entirely to maintain independence). His travels this year, visiting Pakistan and going to meet Syrian refugees in Europe, garnered worldwide attention and kicked off two crowdfunding campaigns.
These weren’t Brandon’s first crowdfunding campaigns, however. In 2013, after photographing a family, fans raised US$83,000 to help with adoption and education costs; when DKNY used Brandon’s images without permission he asked that they donate US$100,000 to a local YMCA chapter, the company donated only a quarter and fans gave an extra US$100,000; and, after photographing a young teen from NYC’s most crime-ridden neighbourhood, the HONY community donated more than US$1 million to help students from his school visit Harvard – the response was so phenomenal a scholarship was started and the boy, his school principal and Brandon were all invited to the Oval Office.
“I think that’s why the fundraisers of Humans of New York have so much power,” says Brandon, “because they spring so organically out of these stories. It’s not like some pre-planned campaign to help the Red Cross – which is a great organisation that deserves all the help it gets – but all the fundraising done on HONY emerges naturally out of the process.” That being said, HONY is not about to become devoted to crowdfunding. “I want the site to be about storytelling,” he says. “I don’t want the audience to think that there’s any motivation behind telling these stories. On a rare occasion I think it’s good for us to all come together and try to impact people who are working to create change.”
The most recent beneficiary was Syeda Ghulam Fatima, the founder of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front which, by setting up Freedom Centres, is trying to provide legal advice and advocacy for the 1 million men, women and children bonded to brick kilns in Pakistan.
Despite not intending to meet Fatima while he was in Pakistan, he had previously watched a VICE documentary on her and bonded labour.“I was aware of it,” he says. “Very cursorly – I actually don’t know if I said that word right, ‘cur-so-ri-ly’. Cursorily,” he chuckles, adding that the documentary reporter was actually the person who helped find him interpreters. “I really went to meet Fatima with no expectations and no plans, it was really more as a favour to this journalist who had helped set me up in Pakistan. My admiration for her, and even our decision to go visit the brick kilns, was completely improvisational.”
Despite being an illegal practice, throughout rural Pakistan many workers take small loans from brick kiln owners when they’re desperate for food or medicine and promise to work in the kilns to pay off the debt, which soon skyrockets, drawing in more members of the family to pay it off. If workers or their children try to escape, they’re threatened and tortured. For trying to help these labourers, Fatima herself has been electrocuted, beaten and even shot, with doctors refusing to provide medical care.
“I get very amazed by these people who are doing the hard legwork of social change and I just want to help,” says Brandon. “It’s just like, ‘Wow, like I’m just telling stories and posting them on Facebook, this woman is getting shot and beaten to free people from slavery. When you compare yourself with that person it’s like, ‘How can I help her do her thing better?’ Because I can’t do as much good as she can but maybe I can help her do that.”
Aiming to raise US$100,000 for Fatima’s organisation, in just four days the HONY community raised US$2.1 million. But for one local, Haseen Saeed, it wasn’t the campaign that changed everything, it was the stories of everyday Pakistanis that Brandon had captured. “I just wanted to thank you for coming to my country and breaking the negative image we have abroad,” he commented on HONY’s Facebook page in August. “Thank you for holding a mirror to this society to help us realise the privileged life we lead. Thank you for showing the hardships the people of this country face. Thank you for approaching drug addicts, asking about their life story. We shun them but you, who don’t even speak the same language, approached them and talked to them. You have single-handedly furthered the eradication of bonded labour in this country [more] than anyone else in years… In this case, you are the hero who is changing the world one picture at a time.”
It’s clear that humans of the world don’t want this conversation to end. And neither do I.