A NEW KIND OF CENSUS
A Look at BRANDON STANTON’s Humans of New York Project
By Meaghan Coffey
When the world population hit 7 billion this past March, as calculated by the United States Census Bureau, I found out what it must feel like to be a number. Living in New York City and having 8 million neighbors doesn’t exactly make that feeling go away. It’s that loneliness-in-a-crowded-room, isolated-in-a-packed-subway, am-I-just-a-statistic, sneaking suspicion that our lives have no impact because a ripple in the middle of the stillest of lakes never reaches any shore. What’s worse? We’re starting to realize the unending invasiveness of online social networking ultimately lessons, rather than contributes to, the level of human connection in our daily lives.
While on one of those websites–a little hipster one called Facebook–I saw a photo on my newsfeed. Some guy I used to sit next to in freshman English and never talked to since had ‘liked’ a photograph of a young man clearly dressed as Waldo–black-rimmed circular glasses, blue jeans, and a red and white striped shirt with a matching hat–cupping his chin with wonder and standing in front of a row of police motorcycles. The caption by the photographer said “I finally found him,” and the first of hundreds of comments read, “I’m still looking! Won’t give up, this gives me hope!”
Even after I saw the title of the page, “Humans of New York,” I thought this was some posting from a strange cosplay convention. And while cosplay conventions are always a fun feature for the website, the project itself is something else entirely. Brandon Stanton took that photo of Waldo and expressed his glee as to having finally located him. He’s also the photographer of all the portraits of the website, the writer of all the witty and touching captions, and the self-proclaimed designer of New York City’s photographic census. Here, I have found my answer to that I’m-a-statistic feeling. Brandon has dedicated the past year and a half to the creation of a humane census, one that shines a magnifying glass over the 8 million names in this city and shows us the attached face. In most of the portraits, you can get a taste of their personality too, from the way they chose to express themselves, the poses they make with the other subjects in the shot, their quotes in the caption, the look in their eyes, the background. This is a new kind of census. One I can get behind.
Brandon’s vision doesn’t ended with the outer borders of these boroughs. There are now ‘Humans of’ pages for Rome, Tel Aviv, Copenhagen, Sydney, Paris, Beirut, Dublin, Jerusalem, Ibiza, India, Budapest, Toronto, Kingston, Florence, Moscow, London, Lebanon, Berlin, Melbourne, Milan, Ramallah, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Fiji Islands, Romania, Ottawa, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Tokyo, and Rio, as well as dozens of other U.S. cities. These pages, run independently but working towards the same goal of the humane census, have contributed thousands of portraits of human interactions and expressive behavior. It’s fascinating, it’s refreshing, and it promotes an invaluable message: there’s a face, a story, a quote, a crazy hat, a shared kiss, a pair of Waldo glasses, a dose of hair dye, a sleeve tattoo, a full personality behind every name, income statement, and address on the list that mysterious United States Census Bureau is keeping, and they’re not going to show it to us. That’s where our imagination, Brandon Stanton, and his vision collide and come in.
Meaghan Coffey: Is Humans of New York a one-man operation?
Brandon Stanton: I do all the photography. Lately I have taken on a couple of unpaid assistants, who work very hard helping me to manage the blog’s social media. I am very thankful for them.
MC: How did Humans of New York get its start? Do you remember the first stranger you asked?
BS: HONY began very organically. That is, it really sprang from a love of photography. I began by just doing “street photography” in Chicago on the weekends; I was trading bonds back then. I very gradually began to incorporate street portraits into my work. The first one I ever did was on a subway. It was a mother and child. I didn’t even really ask them–I just made eye contact, raised my camera, smiled, and waited for them to smile back. The photo turned out great. After that, street portraits became my favorite type of photos. They were just more compelling to me than any other type of photography. After I lost my job in Chicago, I decided to make a crazy attempt to do them full time.
MC: You set up the portraits on an interactive map of the city, based on where you spotted each person. Do you wake up each morning and randomly chose a street corner, or do you sometimes plan it based on noteworthy events around the city. Maybe a Zombie Walk, impending flash mob, or the recent Sikh parade—and I’m sure the Occupy movement provided endless inspiration.
BS: The process is very go-with-the-flow. I go wherever I feel like going. I probably spend too much time in Central Park and the Village, but there is so much diversity there and I always get great portraits. When I realize that I haven’t hit a certain neighborhood in awhile, I will make an extra effort to fit it in. And yes, I do tend to hit all the major events. Though, paradoxically, large crowds don’t make for great street portraits. It’s hard to separate your subject.
MC: Sometimes, the best part of the post is the captions you put beside the photo, whether it’s a quote from the person or a story about how you spotted them or approached them (my favorite is the recent one with the basketball player and his son). Recently though, one post told the story of an Orthodox Jew propositioning a beautiful Sudanese woman. The portrait shows the two smiling next to each other, a seemingly innocent exchange between strangers, but you described how the situation quickly deteriorated and the woman was left feeling shaken and clearly upset, asking for you to share her story. The post garnered over 1,000 comments though it was only up a matter of hours. Do you think it’s important to set up conversations like this, no matter how controversial? Do you think sharing stories of the interactions between people is as important as the portraits themselves?
BS: Great question. That post made me realize how large my audience had become, and really made me reassess my responsibilities. Before that post, I would answer “yes,” I think it’s important to set up these conversations no matter what. After that post, I realized that I have to be very, very, careful about how I share my perspective. I got so much angry mail from both sides of the argument. Even though there was a lot of backlash, I think I made the right decision by taking down the post. HONY is not a court of law. Trial by social media is a very dangerous and volatile concept. Even if I am 95% sure something happened– what are the consequences of sharing that story with 100,000 people? It’s a pretty big responsibility.
MC: What’s your favorite part about putting together this ‘census’? Do you have an ultimate goal in mind?
BS: Talking with people all day long and walking around New York City. I’ve pretty much managed to structure my life so that I am doing my favorite things. I do not have an end goal. I have found something I love to do, and my goal is to continue doing it for as long as possible.
MC: Did you expect this idea to spread so far, wide, and quickly?
BS: I remember a year ago, I told my friend that in “three years I might have 10,000″ followers. Now, a year later, I have 150,000 between Facebook and Twitter. So the short answer would have to be “no.”
Brandon Stanton is a New York-based photographer.
Brandon Stanton Interviewed by Meaghan Coffey
Written and Edited by Meaghan Coffey
Photography by Brandon Stanton
Design by Marie Havens
All Photography by Brandon Stanton