If there’s such a thing as a typical path to becoming an artist, Brandon Stanton didn’t take it. No art school. No photography classes. No dropping out of college. Instead, the 28-year-old Georgia native landed a job as a bond trader in Chicago after betting $3,000 in student loans that Barack Obama would win the 2008 Democratic nomination. When he was later fired from the trading gig during the recession, he took another gamble: street photography. “I enjoy taking risks, whether it be trading bonds or moving to New York and stopping strangers on the street,” says the creator of Humans of New York. And so, with enough savings to live for a single month, Stanton launched a photo blog that proves it’s the city’s people — not the big lights — that inspire.
“I just went out there with no idea what I was doing and decided to take 100,000 photos. I learned by being really bad at photography — over and over and over and over again.” His audience doesn’t seem to think it’s so bad.
How do you choose who you photograph?
I think the biggest misconception is how much I walk. People look at the photos and say, “God, crazy people are everywhere in New York.” But I’ll pass 1,000 people before I take a photograph.
Do people ever turn you down?
All the time. That’s one of the things that makes Humans of New York different. There are lots of street portraits out there, but they’re filled with the young fashionable demographic. Those people never turn me down because those people all want to be photographed. Where it gets trickier is venturing into the demographics where people aren’t walking out the door expecting to be photographed. That’s what makes this photography difficult — dealing with the human element. Rejection just flows off me now.
Captioning seems, in a way, just as important to you as the photo itself.
A lot of the quality in my content comes from the caption. The most popular photos are, meh, average. I messed them up. But then afterwards I’ll be having a conversation with a person and they’ll give me a great line. A great quote can really carry a bad photo.
Any advice for young artists?
For the first year and a half, I photographed every single day. The time I was most devoted to it was the time the least amount of people were paying attention. And that’s really what you’ve got to do to be an artist today. With so many people competing for attention — everybody has a digital camera, everybody has a Tumblr account — you’ve got to be willing to do a lion’s share of the work before anybody notices you. I didn’t leave New York. I photographed on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, I was on a train at midnight on New Year's Eve. That’s really what it takes, and a belief that it’s gong to be good. Even if your parents don’t like it, even if your friends don’t believe in it, you’ve got to believe it’s beautiful. And you got to do it over and over and over again before anybody’s going to care.
Do you have another job?
This is it. I sell prints from time to time to raise money. But basically I view my goal as being achieved, which is being able to do what I love every day and take photos. I’m not rushing towards anything. I’ve got an audience for my work and I just like being out here every day. And let’s be honest: I live on very little. I eat cat food.
This story is a co-production with Tumblr Storyboard.