“It all started from just taking pictures of people,” says Brandon Stanton as we walk onto a Queens-bound 7 train. Stanton is the editor and photographer of the New York City-based blog Humans of New York, a project that he initially started with the intention of taking a photographic census of the city.
Stanton’s goal from the beginning has been to not only depict the grand span of New York’s population through photographs, but also to explore how the population functions in terms of geography, capturing the inherent differences and common characteristics found in the residents of varying New York City neighborhoods, from Bed-Stuy to SoHo. On a chilly February morning, we tagged along on a photo scavenge to Astoria and got to ask him some questions about Humans of New York.
How do you go about asking to take someone’s photo?
In a place where somebody is a lot different than you are, suspicions arise about why you’re taking the photo. There’s something weird about somebody coming up to you and asking to take your photo, right? In the beginning, I would be turned down 90 percent of the time.
When I first started, I was trying tons of stuff out. I would be like, “Hi, my name’s Brandon. I take street portraits,” trying to explain it. I was searching for the perfect combination of words that would allow somebody to let me to take their photograph. As I got more comfortable, I realized it’s not about what you say. It’s about the energy you’re giving off. Now, it’s more like, “Hi! Do you mind if I take your photo?” and I’ll just kind of look at them. If you say it with enough calmness, it actually puts the person in a position where it’s more uncomfortable to say no than to say yes. It’s really evolved my interactions with people in general.
What are some of the pitfalls of being a street photographer?
The hardest part of what I’m doing is making somebody comfortable on the street. It’s not even necessarily the photograph that they’re uncomfortable about, it’s the spectacle. If somebody has a nice camera, and they’re coming close to you, and it’s on the street, there are going to be lots of eyes. That hurts you two-fold. One, it decreases your chance of getting the picture. And two, if you do get the picture, the person’s very uncomfortable. So the big part of the process is making the person as comfortable as possible.
Stanton tells me to walk a few paces back from him in order to observe the process he goes through to acquire a portrait. Nearing an elderly woman who is approaching us on the sidewalk, he bends down for a second to speak with her. Once he is eye level, he asks calmly, “Ma’am, would you mind if I took your photograph?” She declines politely and we continue walking. Stanton is disappointed, but shrugs it off. On to the next one.
Do you get turned down more by men or women?
I have a different approach with men and with women. I always try to use a softest voice as possible, especially with women. Taking photos of women is an area I’ve “improved” in. There’s always the creep-o factor. Like, why does this guy want my photo? Is he going to put it up on some weird site?
I used to be nervous, but if you flick your eyes away for one second, that triggers something primordial in someone, making them wonder why you’re nervous. There are a lot of subconscious calculations going on that just don’t get registered, but all along people are going, “Is this guy a threat to me?” Here’s another tactic: If they’re hanging there, if they haven’t answered me, I’ll go ahead and start to pose them.
We stop for a moment in front of a turquoise storefront gate upon which a huge white peace sign has been painted. Stanton tugs on my coat, motioning for me to stand in front of it. He steps back, positions me again, then steps back to take the photo, continuing to speak.
I got turned down by women so much when I first started. It hurt me because I’m trying to take an accurate representation of the population, so I want representations of every group, relatively equal to the amount represented in the population. Nothing scientific, just kind of going by feel. But women were turning me down so much that I almost stopped asking them, just because they were uncomfortable. Not only were the women I was asking saying no, but I was asking less of them because I was just assuming they would say no. Now I think my approach has gotten so much better that it just seems easier for me.
Why do you think people reject the idea of having their portrait taken?
There’s one thing that determines whether or not a person is going to let me take their photo: Did that person leave the house today with the intention of being seen? People tend to project their own self-image into your reasons for taking a picture of them. Does the person think they’re overweight? If you’re going up and asking to take a photo, they think you want to take a photo because they’re overweight. In the West Village, everyone thinks they’re fashionable. I never get turned down. In SoHo, I never get turned down. It’s more than just gender, it’s the neighborhood. Now, fashion is interesting to me, but do I read Vogue everyday? No. Am I an authority? No. I get a lot of fashionable shots and I get a lot of fashionable people, but I’m also interested in faces, in seeing different people.
Stanton recently photographed at New York Fashion Week, capturing the likes of Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue, and the Sartorialist, a fellow street photographer, as well as various models and fashionistas.
What’s it like work as a photographer on the streets of New York City?
There are so many photographers out there, and the equipment is so good now. Everything in New York that doesn’t move and doesn’t talk has been photographed 10,000 times from 10,000 different angles by 10,000 different photographers who have 10,000 times more experience than you. So, I mean, it’s an exciting time in photography because everyone can do it. But it’s also a difficult time to establish yourself as a photographer.
Stanton stops a man wearing a fur hat for the final photograph of the day. The man smiles bashfully, happily posing for Stanton in the middle of the sidewalk. Even after Stanton has finished, the man continues to smile, honored that someone has asked to take his photograph. We say thank you and he gives a slight shrug, the smile still on his face as we walk in opposite directions.
Where does the “photographic census of the city” part play into all of this?
I have about 50 folders right now with the names of different neighborhoods in New York. Every day I come home and put my photos in one of those 50 folders, so I’m keeping track of them geographically. I’ve got 1,500 photos now. Soon, I’m going to start geo-tagging them. Even in New York there’s a lot of, “Ugh, Bed Stuy. Don’t go there.” What we’re going to do is have a map of the city of New York, where you can click on any neighborhood and scroll through the faces of the people that live there. That’s the primary thrust of the project.
New York represents America for a lot of people. There are 8 million people in the city. People are so different here that people feel free to be different, themselves.