In today’s modern society surveillance is everywhere, from cell phone cameras to municipal traffic signal cameras. It is indeed a Brave New World. Photographer Brandon Stanton has been taking his own photographic census on a mass scale in his ongoing project Humans of New York (HONY). Below we find the intentions and motivations of photographer Brandon Stanton as interviewed by Glasschord trustee Brian Morris.
Brian Morris: Your HONY photos seem to have a certain mass appeal. What do you think attributed to the success of your project?
Brandon Stanton: I think people have a discomforting fear of strangers, these portraits allow people to connect with strangers on a deeply personal level, in the safety of their own home. People are natural voyeurs– we like to observe without being observed. I think that I choose especially interesting people to photograph. And lastly, I think the photos themselves are aesthetically pleasing.
BM: You tapped a good vein? Were you surprised no one has tried something quite like this before?
BS: Similar things have been tried. There are people out there doing street portraits, but nine out of ten times these are fashion oriented. Other times, photographers will focus on specific cultures. I photograph anyone who strikes me. I try to leave my selection process intentionally vague, so as to cast a wide net and get as big of a variety of subjects as possible. Jamal Shabazz did some great portraits of the black community in the 80’s. And Vivian Meyer did some great work. My innovation was the photographic census, and organizing these photos geographically. Initially, it was this concept that got people’s attention. I like to think it was the poignancy and quality of portraits that kept people’s attention.
BM: What made you believe this would be so different or even possible?
BS: I believed that these pictures I was taking of people were unique and special, and that given enough time other people would see them the same way. You really have to believe in your art because even if you are extremely talented, it takes a long time to get noticed. I’d taken over 1,400 portraits before anyone started paying attention. I’ve taken 4,000 now. I was looking at my early portraits the other day– some of them are really bad. But at the time, I believed they were different and special. Maybe a bit of self-delusion is necessary too.
BM: You are not a native New Yorker, has your project made you identify more with the people of this city, as you get the opportunity to interact with them on a this documentary-style basis?
BS: Of course. I think I’ve had a very steep learning curve. I’ve talked to more people and seen more things than many people who have lived here twenty years.
BM: How did you discover and develop the idea for HONY, and how closely does it relate to your original intention?
BS: The idea for HONY arose organically, which I think is part of its power. Everything began with a love of photography. I loved taking photographs. When I used to work in Chicago, I’d spend all my time photographing the city. Occasionally I would photograph people. As I collected more and more photographs, I realized that my most unique photos were the intimate portraits that I took of strangers in the street. So I focused on these. Then a couple of summers ago, I visited New York, and decided that it was the perfect place to take these kinds of portraits. I’d taken 600 portraits in NYC before I even had the idea for a photographic census. So as you can see, everything traces back to a love of photography. The pieces fell in place one at a time. My original intent was to photograph everything, for fun.
BM: Is there any plan for the project’s completion, I mean do you see yourself taking a photograph of every New Yorker in the classic ideal of a cencus?
BS: I don’t see there being a completion for HONY anymore. If there’s been a major change in my intent recently— this is it: I don’t see it ending. Whereas the project started as a photographic census, it’s become a very popular blog. The appeal of the site is no longer anchored in the photographic census– it’s anchored in the photographs themselves. Thousands of people come to my blog every day to see my latest photo, and they don’t even know where the photo was taken.
BM: What characteristics would you say define the people of New York City?
BS: I’ve done these portraits in several cities, and I don’t find New Yorkers as a whole to be different than any other populace.
BM: Something about your project is so whimsical, so magical, how do you manage to capture these “perfect people in perfect places”?
BS: You’d be surprised how imperfect they seem at the time. The camera adds a certain sheen to things. Something about being frozen in time really makes things sparkle.
BM: Are most people cooperative with your approach and direction?
BS: The vast majority, yes.