Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York: The Power of Storytelling In Documentary Photography


“If everyone in the room believes the same thing I get worried.”
All Photos © Brandon Stanton

How does an out of work, amateur photographer manage to acquire a following of 18 million people and publish two best-selling books? “Through a lot of hard work and a refusal to fail,” Brandon Stanton says. Known internationally for his groundbreaking books, Humans of New York and Humans of New York: Stories, Stanton took the simple concept of taking photos of everyday people on the streets of New York City and is now using his popularity to bring attention to the daily struggles of people throughout the world.

Stanton’s story begins in 2010 when he was living in Chicago working as a bond trader. After having flunked out of college and later going back and graduating as a history major with straight A’s, this was the first time he felt he had a “prestigious” job. “I was no longer embarrassed in front of family and friends about where my life was going,” he recalls. But he found himself thinking about the financial markets 24 hours a day, and the job was not going well. To help relieve the day-to-day stress, Stanton started taking pictures of mostly landscapes from many different angles on the weekend. And then he lost that prestigious job.

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“I could look poised in a paper bag. These are ladies’ pants, I don’t even care.”

“What’s your favorite thing about your brother?” “Well…well…well, the WORST thing is when we argue!”

“Getting fired turned out to be a surprisingly good thing,” Stanton believes. “I took a walk that day and thought, ‘What is it I want to do with my life? And it’s not going to be something that just makes me feel important.’” He also felt physically tired from having his thoughts and creative energy tied up for the past two years. He resolved then and there to spend the next few months to “make just enough money so I could control my time to do something I love.”

But he was terrified of taking photos of strangers. A pivotal moment came when he saw two boys on a subway who had the exact same expression on their faces. He knew it would make a great photo and he caught the eye of the mother who seemed to give her approval. Later he looked at the photo with a sense of pride, thinking that someone who had been taking pictures for 20 years might not have been able to capture this shot. And he got over the fear, thinking, “Maybe I could be the guy who stops people on the street and takes their picture.” He set an ambitious goal to move to New York City and photograph 10,000 people; he would work all day and make just enough money to live on for two months. He hoped this would get him an audience and bring enough attention to his photography that it might lead to future jobs.

What really made the difference in 2010 that could not have happened 15 years earlier is the power of the Internet. After taking interesting photos of people throughout the city, Stanton posted them each night in a blog he created and also on Facebook. At, he took the extra step of creating a map pinpointing where the photos were taken, “in case someone wanted to get to know his or her neighbors.” When the time came to try and get his first book published, he could demonstrate the large following he had. “Fifteen years ago I would have had to rely on the blessing of publications such as The New York Times or New York Magazine to notice me and provide the publicity,” Stanton believes.

“Are you an artist?”“Divorce lawyer.”

“You can make about 75 percent more money with a cat on your head than you can with a cat on your shoulder.”

“I scratch myself every time the cops come because they don’t like to deal with you if you’re bleeding.”

A Unique Photography Genre
Stanton was too busy photographing out on the street to notice other documentary photographers’ work. But later on he learned there was an entire genre of the type of street photography he was doing.

“Almost in retrospect I realized these people were like my ancestors after I stumbled into it myself.” He particularly admires the work of Vivian Maier and Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist series. “He was the only photographer I knew about who created his own unique audience through his blog. Even though he was from the fashion world I looked at his work as a model I could follow.”

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Choosing the Right Photo Subject
Stanton has no set formula for choosing people on the street for his photos. “I look for people doing something interesting and then look for visual cues like a particular color on something they are wearing. Are they eccentric or unique? And when the project evolved into storytelling, I started looking for those who might have the time, which is hard to find in New York City. They might be sitting on a bench, taking a casual stroll, or are out smoking on a break, for example.”

After starting out taking candid photos of random people, Stanton soon found it was much easier to ask permission first. “I’ve been chased down the street many times by angry people,” Stanton recalls, “and I’m probably the only best-selling author who was treated like a street person.” He noticed little difference in the results between the candids and those for which he asked permission.

A heavy shooter in the early days, Stanton would take several hundred shots a day. “I learned photography by taking thousands of photos and making thousands of mistakes,” Stanton says. Today he takes about 10 to 20 shots of each person with maybe six or seven different people each day.

Stanton has always used a Canon digital camera and today has a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a 50mm f/1.2 lens. He does a minimal amount of postproduction work, mainly because he doesn’t know Photoshop that well. “I might do a little Lightroom auto-toning, but that’s about it. I’ve always wanted to keep the attention on people and not get too bogged down with a flawless focus, white balance, or aperture.”

“I’ve got lots of faults. I’m sure I’m not easy to live with. I’m not the best communicator. And I’m sure it’s not very cool to see your man crawling on the floor of a hotel room. But she loves me.”

One day Stanton was not feeling well and had nothing to post on his blog. So he pulled out a photo of a woman he refers to as the “green lady.” He remembered her saying, “I used to be a different color every single day. One day I chose green and that was a great day so I’ve been green for 15 years.” He decided to include this caption along with the photo and suddenly people were more engaged than with any other photo he had ever posted. “I realized continued success was probably going to be due to my ability to approach strangers and talk with them as opposed to just my photography skills. My goal now was to tell stories,” Stanton recalls.

“I stop a random person on the street and first create a zone of comfort. I ask questions such as ‘What is your biggest regret in life?’ and I get them talking. They might share with me things they haven’t even told their best friend or closest family members, such as affairs, abuse, guilt, successes, mistakes, or their wife’s cancer. I know there are two threads going through their head at the same time—fear and vulnerability in exposing themselves. But there’s also the appreciation of being heard.” Stanton conducts the interview at the same time he is photographing, and the whole process takes about an hour to an hour and a half per person.

“I’ve taken over five thousand portraits of people in New York, and I find out a little bit about everyone I photograph…” “Well, you’re not finding out a thing about me!”

Publishing the First Book
It was surprisingly difficult to find a publisher for his first book, Humans of New York. “With over 200,000 Facebook fans at the time, I was feeling like a pretty big deal,” Stanton says. “My agent and I had a few meetings with publishers, and some said photography books don’t really sell and that my work was too ‘regional.’” When the time came for publishers to put in offers, one proposal was for a “cheap paperback” and the other came from St. Martin’s Press at the very last minute. The book went on to sell over 145,000 copies and was on The New York Times Best Sellers list for 29 weeks.

Not wanting to leave kids out of the concept, Little Humans was published in 2014. Also taken in urban settings, the portraits include a variety of ethnic backgrounds, unique outfits, and spontaneous poses, along with simple free verses such as “Little humans can do BIG things, if they stand up tall and hold on tight.” The following year Humans of New York: Stories was published, providing a glimpse of the subject’s life along with the photos.

“My idol is the Hulk.”

Taking the Concept International
In 2014, Stanton decided to take the Humans of New York (HONY) idea to countries all over the world. One of his first projects was a United Nations sponsored 50-day world tour to 15 countries, including Iraq, Israel, Uganda, South Sudan, and later Pakistan. “Since mostly negative narratives come from the media in these areas, I think the randomness of my interviewing everyday people helps present a more positive picture. People were happy to share their family stories—their struggles, hopes, and dreams. I think this project really helps to soften the image of a country in the eyes of the world.”

He also quickly learned that his followers are “just nice, nice people.” As one example, Stanton publicized the plight of brick workers in Pakistan who enter into a contract to work in a brick kiln for a short period of time, but due to predatory loan practices they end up owing a lot of debt they can’t repay. An Indiegogo campaign to help free them raised over $1 million in 12 hours from 40,000 donors, and today the amount totals $2.3 million.

Stanton’s latest project was interviewing patients, families, doctors, and caregivers from the pediatrics department of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “Cancer in kids is one of the greatest injustices of nature. I thought if you want to have a benevolent, spiritual view of the world, this is something you need to look in the face and examine,” Stanton says. So far he and his followers have raised over $4 million for pediatric cancer research.

Ironically spent the entire Calvin Klein show trying to get a sweet pic of Bill Cunningham. He’s been photographing for decades, yet still giggles with delight when he snaps a good shot. What a great soul. (Editor’s note: Bill Cunningham passed away on June 25, 2016.)

Preserving the Brand
Stanton is very careful how his HONY brand is used, and does not allow any online advertising on his blog or Facebook page. “I do no co-branding or paid placements, and do not rent out the HONY name to give influence to any other brand,” he says. “The only money I make is from book sales and giving about 10 to 12 speeches a year.”

In a recent speech to college students, Stanton’s parting words of advice were to never be afraid to fail. “You can only develop by failing—it’s an indispensable skill. Every great risk has a greater possibility of failure. Find something you’re scared to do and then put yourself in a position to fall on your face. You’ll eventually take the risk that’s going to pay off.”

To see more of Brandon Stanton’s work, visit his website,