"Hell is other people," the philosopher once said, and some days in New York City, it is really hard to disagree. Days when the huddled masses make it impossible to breathe free. Days when it feels like you vs. 8 million "thems."
But if you can find a way to break the strange crowd into familiar pieces and then crack the stone-faced armor we wear until the honesty spills out, the city softens.
When you learn that he wishes he'd gone to college, she is still reeling from a broken engagement, and his prostate cancer makes him sad and afraid, the mean streets don't seem so mean.
When you learn that she is mad because he didn't call her after the game or that she's happy because he dressed up and carried the picnic basket or that his dad is a strong fireman who once saved 11 people. Well, then how can you not love this town?
They are the Humans of New York, a photographic melting pot of joy and pain, wisdom and beauty, ethos and pathos and pure molten cuteness.
And they are brought to you by one human of New York, a lovable guy named Brandon Stanton. He has approached more than 10,000 strangers and what they give him gets shared on Facebook millions of times a day. Though he has a limited knowledge of camera settings and Photoshop software, his first book is about to land atop the bestseller list. He almost never posts pictures of himself, but somehow people know that this is the guy who moves them, the guy who connects them, one honest portrait at a time.
Pretty incredible considering that 3-and-a-half years ago, he was a stressed-out bond trader in Chicago. But then two events changed his life. First, he got a real camera. And then, he got fired.
“I woke up and I'd lost my job,” said Stanton. “All of my time and all of my thoughts, all of my creative abilities were absorbed in making money. Not even making a product to make money, just making money for 3 years. Suddenly, I was fired, which I feared so much, but then I had all this thought energy to put toward anything I want.”
And what he wanted was to take pictures of interesting strangers.
“Here I am, doing this all day long, with absolutely nothing to show for it,” Stanton recalled. “I didn't have money to go home, I barely had money to eat. I got a common cold during this period and my body was so wasted that I was in bed for 10 days because all I was eating was peanut butter and jelly and Cheerios. This went on for 6 months. I photographed every single day. I photographed on Christmas, I photographed on Christmas Eve, I photographed on Thanksgiving, I photographed on New Year's Day, all day long.”
He took some interesting shots in the early days and built a modest following but then he started actually talking to his subjects and learned that people are more willing to open up to a stranger with a camera than to their best friend.
And suddenly he wasn't just a photographer looking for cool visuals. He was a collector of precious stories. And when he started posting these raw little vignettes with the photos, his following exploded.
“My best posts are the least stage-managed ones,” said Stanton. “Because everything on social media is so stage-managed. How is this going to look to my mom? To the girl I like? The guy I like? It's a cliché, but you get everybody's highlight reels. Social media is secondary when I'm having these conversations on the street. You're getting the full spectrum: the insecurities, the tragedies.”
So how does he do it? Well, over time he's learned that it's not what you say to a stranger but how you say it.
“It's all about the energy you give off,” he said. “For me and on the streets of New York that's about making yourself as non-threatening, genuine, you know, natural as possible.”
And he's honed the approach so well, two out of every three say yes. And few fail to surprise in some way.
It's easy to mock the old cultures that believe a camera can steal the soul, but Humans of New York is the kind of photography that makes you wonder if they're right.
And if it makes you think differently about that passing stranger in your big city or small town that makes Brandon Stanton one happy guy.