Peanut’s son Duncan bought me a copy of Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton for my recent birthday. To be honest I was not familiar with Brandon until he gave me this and instantly I took to photographs and his approach to taking his photos. He introduces himself on his Facebook page, Humans of New York and on his website Humans of New York.com as follows:
My name is Brandon and I began Humans of New York in the summer of 2010. I thought it would be really cool to create an exhaustive catalogue of New York City’s inhabitants, so I set out to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers and plot their photos on a map. I worked for several months with this goal in mind, but somewhere along the way, HONY began to take on a much different character. I started collecting quotes and short stories from the people I met, and began including these snippets alongside the photographs. Taken together, these portraits and captions became the subject of a vibrant blog. With nearly four million followers on social media, HONY now provides a worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers in New York City. It has also become a #1 NYT bestselling book.. It’s been quite a ride so far. Feel free to follow along.
Simply put, for me the website and book are inspirational and I think I have identified two key things that inspire me from Brandon Stanton’s success with this project. First, it is the quality of the photos and the way he goes about getting the pictures and secondly, bearing in mind he bought his first ever camera in 2010, it is his rapid rise to prominence in the Photographic world.
So allow me to explain what I like about his photographs and his approach to street photography. In a nutshell, he engages with his subject – the person he is photographing. They know they are being photographed, they are happy with that, they share a piece of their lives and offer up a quote to go with the photograph. This approach to street photography seems refreshingly different to me to the usual mindset regarding street photography. The rights of the photographer seem to be under threat and are being undermined constantly and a lot of the photographers are on a mission to protect their rights to photograph pretty much anything in a public place. Slowly this freedom to photograph anything is diminishing, certain places such as Trafalgar Square have limitations, privately owned buildings and parks open to the public nearly always introduce their own rules regarding photography and of course while, you have the right to photograph just about anyone in a public place, you would not be able to use the photograph for promotional or commercial purposes without a model release form. Often Street photography has a furtive, stealth like approach, capturing people unawares, without their knowing. Candid shots, spontaneous shots. Legal? Yes. Polite? No. And of course sometimes these photographers get spotted and anger the person they are photographing. The photographer might have right on his side, but if this is your hobby, do you want to go around causing upset to people and doubtless getting yourself worked up in the process? I don’t. I like the concept of Street Photography, it is one of my favourite genres of photography, but this covert, clandestine almost, element to it disturbs me. Some say you just have to be brave to do this, well for me it is not about being brave, it is about wanting to be a gentleman first and a photographer second. I take pictures for pleasure, for the fun it brings into my life and hopefully for the chance it gives me to share that fun with others. Hastily snatched covert pictures of someone who does not wish to be photographed are a million miles away from the reason why I take photographs. Now this is where Brandon Stanton is a real game changer for me. He has made his own rules up for what street photography is all about – not for him the covert candid shot with the subject oblivious to the fact that they are being photographed – and as a measure of how good his rules are, just look at the success of his book and his blog. He has definitely got something right.
The second thing I admire about Brandon Stanton is his rapid rise to prominence in the photographic world. From buying his first camera in 2010 he has risen to the heady heights of success in the world of photography by having his first book published in October 2013 and more than that a book that has become a real success. Just about all my friends have DSLRs, many like myself are members of their local camera clubs and one or two are even fellow bloggers. Many of them have aspirations to make a living from photography. They are all precious about their photos, the ownership of their photos and their photos being “stolen” and used eleswhere without their permission. Blah de blah de blah, you get the picture. But the truth is there are literally millions of wonderful photographers out there all producing stunning images and nearly all are keen amateurs. So what is the missing something that will launch them into success in the world of photography? Well sadly, I doubt it is their wonderful ability as a photographer. There are just too many marvelous photographers out there capable of wearing the number 9 shirt for the Manchester United or the Liverpool of the photography world. In this modern world success will probably be the result of adept and skilful social media promotion. So all the aspirations in the world and all the skills in the world as a photographer are unlikely to lift you out of the herd of wonderful photographers that populate this modern, globalised world. No you will need to be comfortable at self promotion and social media marketing.
Brandon Stanton’s rise to fame is by his own admission a result of the power of social media. His website was initially a slow burner with few visits. His friend Mike Schaefer convinced him to start a Facebook page for HONY. Within the year he had gained half a million followers. Next he discovered Tumblr. With support from the Editorial team at Tumblr his site quickly rose to prominence.
The next growth splurge came from his decision to interview his subjects and match a quote from them to his photographs. None of this furtive street photography. Honest photos paired to a quote from the subject. His photos coupled with these few short words, became real, vivid, they burst into life. From that point on his audience was constantly connecting with his photos, the pictures were provoking an emotional response and his followers just grew even more. And quite simply I am one of his followers and am hugely inspired by his work and his approach to photography.
At the top of this blog is a recent Brandon Stanton and the all important quote. Now with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that the one time I took a photograph using Brandon’s approach, it brought me and my wife peanut a lot of pleasure and the couple we photographed a lot of fun too. The story is a simple one. We were on holiday in Venice and photographing just about everything we set eyes on. In a quieter corner of Venice I saw a young couple grabbing a quick kiss. I readied my camera just as they stopped. I was about 40 feet away but it was a quiet area I shouted to them “Kiss! Kiss!” they looked up shy and coy. I shouted again “Kiss, Kiss!” waving my camera. They posed a kiss and I snapped it. When they finished the girl ran up to me and gave me her iPhone and asked me to take the picture again as she rushed back to her lovers arms. I was so pleased with that photograph and me and Peanut were talking about this tiny incident for days afterwards. even better, we knew that somehow we had made their perfect day in Venice that little bit more perfect. I didn’t know at the time, but this was the style of Brandon Stanton, and this photograph epitomises all that I love about photography. it was fun for us and it was fun for the people we photographed.