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A 'Photographic Census' Captures New York's Characters

Tips on street portraits from New York's resident photographer.

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You could say that Brandon Stanton is on a mission. You could say that he has a passion. Or you could say he is perhaps a bit…obsessive. Whatever you want to call it, Stanton, 28, has been walking the streets of New York for hours every day for a year and a half, taking pictures of the city’s people for his Humans of New York project. He estimates that he has shot about 4,000 portraits over that time, and heard as many stories. He calls it a "photographic census" of the city.

Stanton, who grew up in Atlanta, came to New York after a three-year stint as a bond trader in Chicago. He remembers the date of the move exactly: November 4, 2010. He hasn’t looked back since. Only forward, through the lens of his Canon EOS 7D. No day job. Just miles and miles of walking the city’s streets each day, looking for characters.

How does he afford it? "I’m broke, and I live very cheaply," says Stanton. "I don’t eat out. I don’t go out. I don’t want the project to be a means to achieve a lifestyle. I want it to be a lifestyle in itself."


He has had "a couple of generous benefactors," and he’s been using savings from his bond-trader days. Still, he knows he’s going to have to figure out how to monetize Humans of New York eventually.

That’s starting to seem like a real possibility as word of Stanton’s project has spread. His Facebook page has nearly 60,000 likes, double the total of a month ago. People from around the world have been asking him if they can do "humans of" projects in their own cities. He’s fine with people using the idea, free of charge, but he won’t promote their work on his blog until they’ve shown dedication and commitment. Projects in Tel Aviv, Rome, San Francisco, and Copenhagen have made the cut.

Stanton recently published a list of tips for would-be street photographers. Here are a few:

First of all, accept that some people will say “no.” A few people may even act offended that you asked. This has nothing to do with you, or what you are doing. Do not let these people make you feel rude. Do not let these people make you feel weird. There is nothing wrong with politely asking another person for their photograph. Most people will be honored.

Accept that you are going to be nervous when you first begin stopping people. This is completely natural. You must keep asking until you are no longer nervous. This takes time. But it’s the most important step.

Because the most important part of asking for a stranger’s portrait is remaining completely calm. People tend to reflect each other’s emotions-- so if you are nervous, your subject will be nervous….

Street photography is unpredictable. Your subjects will do unexpected things. Let these things happen. Don’t try to “control” every part of the photo. If a subject has an “idea” for a pose, I always jump on board. Let go. Some of my favorite portraits have come from the unexpected. Let chaos work for you….

Finally--- talk to the person, but be natural. Don’t act like Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. Act like a human. Take a quick interest. Joke with them. Adding even the simplest quote to a photo can lend so much humanity to an image.

Stanton, who has no formal training in photography, told me that the real barrier to taking street portraits is the very normal human fear of rejection. “Especially when you start, a lot of people are going to say no,” he says. At first, the rejections sting. But he says that after all the thousands of interactions he’s had, he doesn’t really register them any more.

He compares his romance with street photography to a real-life love affair. When he started, he was out shooting eight hours a day, seven days a week. That initial intensity has faded a bit, even as the relationship has deepened. Now, Stanton says, he’s in a long-term commitment. “I’m very dedicated to it,” he says. “I don’t see Humans of New York as a stepping stone. I don’t have any immediate plans to do anything else.”

Below, a slideshow of some of Stanton's favorite shots:

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.