When street portraits from a project called “Humans of New York” started popping up on my Facebook newsfeed a year or two ago, I was busily pursuing a degree in fine-art photography. I can’t remember exactly when I first became aware of the project, but as the page gained in popularity and more and more of my friends — some of them not even located in the New York area — began “liking” the photos, I couldn’t help but wonder what made the blog so popular.
In the “About” section of his website, humansofnewyork.com, Brandon Stanton introduces himself as the photographer and mastermind behind HONY, as the project is commonly abbreviated. The 28-year-old Georgia native describes how he moved to New York in 2010 after a three-year stint as a bond trader in Chicago, and became interested in the idea of photographing 10,000 New Yorkers as a kind of photographic census of the city. Along the way, this idea expanded to collecting quotes and snippets of information about his subjects, and posting these stories along with his photographs to a blog.
"What was the happiest moment of your life?"
"There are two: When my son was born, and last night."
As a formally educated photographer, I can attest to the fact that HONY’s portraits are generally well-composed and technically sound. If not exactly earth-shattering or revolutionary by highbrow “art” standards, they are certainly aesthetically inoffensive — and the diverse, colorful New York they depict is unquestionably one I’m in support of. But there are over eight million people in New York City, and nearly as many dabblers in street photography. True, not all of these dabblers own professional cameras or promote their photography on Facebook, but why is HONY approaching one million likes on Facebook, with nearly all of its photographs regularly receiving 10-30,000 "likes"?
In the time since I first heard of Humans of New York, I've completed my degree in photography, moved to New York City, and begun my own street photography project. And in doing so, I've gained a completely new perspective on HONY.
What I've learned is that there’s something isolating about being in a big city like New York. There’s something especially lonely about being pushed up against a million strangers, and knowing none of them. Sometimes the humans of New York are just the people in your way, the people front of you in the Starbucks line. It’s easy to become a non-human in a non-human crowd. The first instinct of most street photographers is to hide themselves and their camera, and to watch people from a distance.
"What was the happiest day of your life?"
"When I got this job."
So, yes — HONY’s photographs are OK. But HONY's approach to street photography is superb. Stanton has more seemingly personal and life-altering conversations with strangers than many of us ever do — and simply by stopping people, talking to them, and taking an interest in their lives. While maintaining an upbeat and supportive tone, Stanton does not whitewash his picture of New York. He includes images of people fighting very real battles with poverty, substance abuse, and mental illness. He celebrates the people he photographs — not just for their successes, but for their struggles — and for their humanity.
In interviews, Stanton speaks of how part of his aim in creating a photographic census was to build bridges between neighborhoods, between boroughs, and between people. Stanton has spoken about how he’s been approached by people warning him about taking photographs in particular areas. He always replies that he’s asked hundreds of strangers and hasn’t yet had a problem. People are generally much nicer than we realize, he says.
I cannot truly claim to be a New Yorker, but I can claim to be generally cynical and sarcastic. As a photographer myself, my first instinct is to be coolly critical of HONY's success. But more than just "Photography of New York," Humans of New York manages to transform a city that’s not known for being particularly friendly from something impersonal to something intensely supportive and personal.
And, as a human, I just like that.