A conversation with Brandon Stanton - Humans of New York
Before there was a NY Times best-selling book, before there were more than 20 millions of followers on social media, before he launched a campaign that raised $1 million for a Brooklyn school, Brandon Stanton was a blogger with a quirky goal. He wanted to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers and create a visual census of the city. And that’s when we found him.
I stumbled on HONY in 2011 and had a crazy idea that we should invite him to one of our Free Photo Webinars. We often asked photographers to share their work on our webinars and answer questions from members of our community.
Honestly, I didn’t think I’d hear from him, so I was a little geeked out when he wrote right back — and agreed. In all, we spent about 1.5 hours on that webinar. Brandon answered questions patiently and shared his philosophy on so many parts of his work.
Brandon's interview was one of my favorite from back then. I trimmed the conversation down a bit but wanted to leave most of it intact. I think you’ll want to hear the entire interview.
After I spoke with Brandon, I shared my takeaways in a blog post, What I Learned from Humans of New York. I think they still apply - not just to street portraits but photographing people in general.
It takes commitment. Brandon says he shot several hours a day for six months - almost 1,000 pictures a day - before anyone noticed. He had posted 1,600 portraits on Humans of New York and seemed to get no real traction. He kept shooting.
Make Mistakes. Some of us can be so worried about taking bad photos that we don’t shoot any photos. It’s okay to take bad photos. “It was through the bad photos that I learned to take good photos,” says Brandon.
On approaching people. “What makes Humans of New York unique is my interaction,” says Brandon. “The quality of photographs come out of interpersonal skills, not photography skills. Engage the person as a person and not a subject. Relate as a human being and not subject-photographer relationship.”
Ask for the photo. Here’s one reason to ask for the photo. When you allow people to participate in creating their portraits, you can get them to do so much more ... you have permission to get closer, pose them, move them to a different location, or a whole host of things that can improve the final picture.
Ask more questions. You also engage people by being genuinely curious and asking questions. The exciting stories usually develop as you continue to ask more questions.
Pay attention. The charm of photography is sometimes in the unexpected. Don’t try to control the situation. Sometimes when you are so focused on creating a specific photo, you risk missing the picture that’s developing in front of you.
What’s your biggest challenge when photographing people?
In the next two weeks, photograph a stranger and share the picture and the story with us.