Travelling through India, Brandon Stanton of the popular photoblog Humans of New York (HONY) talks about picking up photography four years ago, the art of storytelling and portraying normality from troubled countries. HONY is a collection of images and conversations of normal people of New York, a vibrant album of the city, which has garnered millions of followers across the world. The 30-year-old American held a meet-up at Central Park in the Capital on Sunday, where a thousand people turned up. Excerpts from an email interview:
How were you initiated into photography?
I didn’t actually begin photographing, or even visit New York for the first time until I was 26. I was looking for a hobby to help take my mind off the stress of my finance job. I was living in Chicago at the time, and would take the camera downtown on weekends. Not long after I began photography, I lost my job in finance and decided to take some time off work. It was during this period that HONY was formed.
Tell us about the evolution of HONY.
It wasn’t a fully formed idea when I began. It started because of my love for photography and, along the way, I made hundreds of tiny evolutions with my work. The biggest evolution was the storytelling and HONY began to grow quickly when I started interviewing my subjects.
How did your current world tour for the United Nations to map 11 countries materialise ?
The tour began with a brainstorming session between me and the United Nations over ways that I could help promote the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Somebody suggested a world tour in honour of the MDGs. The aim of the project is to travel to different countries and listen to the stories of random people on the streets.
You’ve visited some troubled countries such as Ukraine and Iraq. Was there a criterion of selecting photographs from these countries?
Wherever I go, I just try to show normal life. If the work helps to dispel stereotypes, it’s because I seek not to portray the extremities of a place, but the vast majority of people who are quite normal and are having normal life experiences. The media chooses to portray the most extreme and violent aspects of a place. I do the opposite, and portray the normality.
Is this your first visit to India?
Yes, and because of the diversity and the colourful culture, India is a photographer’s paradise. Out of all the places I’ve been to so far, India is the place I am most looking forward to returning to. I have been eating so much Indian food and, without fail, every time I finish a meal, I say, ‘God I love India!’
When did you decide on publishing the blog as a book?
I think the possibility of a book was always in the back of my mind. I was very pleased at how well the blog transferred to book form. The second book Little Humans is finished and will hit stores immediately after the trip.
Did you ever think HONY would become such a global phenomenon?
In the early days, it was very hard to imagine that HONY would eventually have the impact that it has come to have. I always knew that I’d never be able to control the impact of the work, but could only control how hard I worked. So I made a promise to myself that I’d always keep my focus on the work, and not the result.
What were your initial apprehensions when you first began the blog?
I do sometimes worry that people will give answers that they think I want to hear. I think that, as the project got bigger, the possibility of stage-managed answers has grown, because so many people have heard of the blog and they desire to be portrayed in a certain way. Fortunately, I’ve done so many interviews that I’ve become very good at detecting when someone is giving a less-than-candid reply.
What has been the toughest bit about HONY?
When I first began, the toughest part about doing the work was the rejection. When you’re approaching people on the street, there can be streaks of 10 or 20 people who turn you down, which can be very disheartening. After four years of doing this, I’m very accustomed to the rejection now.
Tell us about your most memorable experiences during the HONY world tour?
It has probably been my conversations with refugees in Iraq and Jordan. There are few personal tragedies greater than the horror of war.