You know you’ve made it when the leader of the free world big-ups your blog.
“What an inspirational story,” he wrote. “One of the most fulfilling things that can happen to you as a parent is to see the values you’ve worked to instill in your kids start to manifest themselves in their actions – and this one really resonated with me. I hope this young man never loses his desire to help others. And I’m going to continue doing whatever I can to make this world a place where he and every young person like him can live up to their full potential.” (The post by the verified White House page on Facebook was signed “-bo,” the convention established by the administration on its social media accounts to signify when a message or posting is coming personally from Obama.)
For the president, his comment was the latest in a series of social media posts that have cast him as a common modern man: one who tweets, shares and takes bad selfies. (It seems to be working. “This comment makes me believe in the human connection,” one person wrote.)
For Humans of New York, however, the Internet exchange was something else.
It was the pinnacle of a meteoric rise for the photography blog; one that has given its 31-year-old founder incredible power and influence, but also opened him up to scathing criticism.
Humans of New York (HONY) has an epic origin story.
Brandon Stanton was a beefy, six-foot-four-inch history student at the University of Georgia when he made a wild bet. It was 2008 and the college senior staked $3,000 in student loans on Obama winning the presidential election, according to Stanton’s official bio.
Stanton won twice over. In addition to earning him an election payday, the bold wager also caught the attention of a friend, who helped him get a job trading bonds in Chicago.
“I traded for three years. It went really well for awhile. But then it went really bad,” Stanton wrote in his bio, with a link to him with his hand over his face as the market crashed. “Whoops.”
According to HONY lore, Stanton was fired from his trading job, but not before buying a DSLR camera. “Instead of updating my resume and looking for a similar job, I decided to forget about money and have a go at something I truly enjoyed,” he wrote.
So he moved to New York and launched an ambitious project to snap 10,000 portraits of everyday people.
It didn’t go so well, at first. Guys were wary. Women thought he was a creep.
“The early days were very tough,” Stanton wrote during a 2013 Reddit AMA. “Six months in — I was broke, I’d taken thousands of portraits, I didn’t know anyone in New York, nobody was paying attention. Every time I talk about it in a speech I start crying. I’d been working on HONY everyday, non-stop, for a year before it got any traction at all.
“The early days of HONY were lonely as hell. Why’d I stick with it? I was obsessed. I just thought HONY was such a cool idea and I just knew there had to be a way to make it work. The only time I was happy was when I was photographing. It’s when I stopped that I got sad. My first Christmas season in New York was the saddest time in my life. I couldn’t afford to go home. I just photographed my way through it to keep from being so lonely. I photographed all day Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.”
About a year in, however, he started to get some traction. Stanton developed a following of Facebook friends, then his friends’ friends, then total strangers. Slowly but surely, his Tumblr and Facebook accounts began to pick up steam.
His first big break came in February 2013 when Tumblr founder David Karp said HONY was his favorite Tumblr page.
“Basically this young aspiring photographer who moved to New York with this dream of taking ten thousand portraits,” Karp said. “That was the dream: he wanted to take ten thousand portraits of some interesting and unbelievably mundane New Yorkers doing their regular New York stuff, or their regular weird New York stuff.”
By October, Stanton had 1.5 million Facebook followers.
But HONY’s viral fame wasn’t due to Karp’s shout-out or even the quality of the blog’s photographs (it has improved over the years as Stanton has gained experience and better equipment).
It was due to Stanton.
It probably didn’t hurt that he’s a big Southerner with a goofy smile, and that he maintains the direct, persuasive demeanor of a Midwestern bonds salesman. But Stanton says he gradually learned to put people at ease and tease out their most intimate stories.
In a 2014 speech, Stanton said his “competitive advantage” was his “energy” and knack for “taking an atmosphere of kind of fear and strangeness and uncomfortableness and turning that into an atmosphere of intimacy where people feel comfortable to disclose in a very short amount of time.
“The way I figured this out was just by doing it 10,000 times and getting beaten down, beaten down, beaten down, beaten down,” he said. “There is no way I’m the best photographer in the world, no way that I’m the best journalist in the world, but I have approached over 10,000 people on the streets of what is stereotypically… one of the colder cities in the world and have asked them for their photograph. So I’m thinking by about this time I might be just about the best in the world at stopping random people on the street and getting them to let me take their photograph.”
Over the past two years, Humans of New York has exploded, soaring from 1.5 million Facebook followers in October 2013 to 9 million a year ago to its current tally of roughly 15 million. That’s twice the number of people that actually live in New York. Journalism classes now use HONY as an example of how to draw readers, and a book collection of Stanton’s posts became an instant best-seller. In recent years, he has often photographed people overseas (this was his second trip to Iran, for example), betraying the name of his blog but not its spirit.
HONY’s style has played a central role in its success.
A typical post, or “story,” as Stanton calls them, will consist of a portrait of a person — sometimes seemingly normal, other times bizarrely dressed or engaged in a strange activity like charging at the camera — alongside a pithy quote from that person.
“It is the juxtaposition of portrait and quotation – some poignant, some oblique, some funny – that resonate,” wrote Tim Dowling in the Guardian. “You often don’t get a whole story – in one, a clown with a rabbit on his shoulder simply says, ‘I’m under a lot of pressure’ – but it only takes a few words to turn a stranger into a human being.”
But that same style has drawn a number of detractors, and Stanton has been ensnared in several controversies during his rise to social media stardom.
The first broadside against the blog came in August 2014 in a scathing critique in Gawker. Calling Humans of New York “a steady stream of clickbait,” Daniel D’Addario argued that Stanton reduced people to “caricatures,” particularly people of color. His stories “exist to fulfill stereotypes; the evidently rich fellow gets to brag about his achievements, the nonwhite woman gets to complain about her lot in life,” he wrote.
“It appears that Stanton sees people not as people but as vectors of how young, white New Yorkers see them,” D’Addario added. “One hardly need to read the captions, which are drawn from conversations Stanton has with his subjects—the sentences he chooses are never surprising or enlightening. They’re designed to confirm safe assumptions about the inner lives, or lack thereof, of everyone in New York.”
The damning critique went just as viral as any of Stanton’s stories, tapping into unease about HONY’s less-than-journalistic style and one-man-ethics-department. Some commenters said they were “suspicious of how he gets stories out of people.” Others took potshots at his expensive camera — “What kind of underdog has $5000 equipment?” — or provocative captions.
But the Gawker piece didn’t dent HONY’s appeal or slow down its growth. (His Facebook followers have nearly doubled since it was published). Stanton has also repeatedly shot down questions about how he makes money. He has often used his blog to launch fundraising campaigns for his subjects, such as $318,530 for Hurricane Sandy victims, $32,167 so a little boy could ride a horse and nearly $1.5 million so kids from Brooklyn could visit Harvard. The last campaign earned him an invite to the White House.
“I’ve said publicly that I don’t want to ‘cash out’ or ‘monetize’ HONY,” he wrote in the 2013 AMA. “I like to say it publicly because I want my audience to keep me on mission. HONY print sales have raised nearly $500,000 for charity in the past six months. I want to further monetize the site for non-profit ventures. I honestly want to ‘give’ HONY to New York in some way.”
A more serious controversy occurred earlier this summer, however, when Stanton was accused of breaching journalistic practices.
A July 3 post on HONY feature a weeping schoolboy with the quote: “I’m homosexual and I’m afraid about what my future will be and that people won’t like me.”
It was a powerful image, and one that drew supportive comments from luminaries such as Hillary Clinton and Ellen Degeneres. But the post also drew harsh criticism beyond the far right.
In an article titled “Everything Wrong (Including Yes, Journalistically) With The HONY Gay Schoolboy Photo,” Web site BagNews slammed Stanton’s story as “heart-rending” but half-baked:
A viewer has certain expectations when looking at pictures. From the perspective of a photo editor, there are questions that immediately come to mind when looking at this photo. What is the context of this quote? What was the rest of the conversation? Was it responsible (and/or ethical) for Stanton to post a photo of a child this young saying he’s “a homosexual?” Where were this child’s parents? Who, what, where and when are the basic questions a photo, published in public, at least one with this type of import, must address in its content and in its caption. None of these questions can be answered hereby just looking at the photograph and the quote. Moreover, a quote is not a caption. This is a very important distinction for the audience to be able to make.
With a massive social media following many times the size of America’s biggest newspapers, Stanton has an obligation to act like a journalist, even if he thinks of himself as a storyteller, BagNews wrote. And by posting that photo with that quote just after the Supreme Court issued its ruling on gay marriage, Stanton was breaking his own promise of staying apolitical.
Obama’s comment on Thursday probably won’t help Stanton to stay above the political fray, but the blogger appears to have learned a lesson from the July debacle. This time, when one of the world’s most powerful people commented on his post, he didn’t reply to say thanks.
But thousands of other people did, once again proving the surprising power of a photo blog started on a whim by an unemployed twenty-something-year-old.
“I’ve been in tears today because the world is in turmoil, there are 60 million people displaced and a 3 year old washed up on a bloody beach this morning,” wrote Peta Wittkopp underneath the story of the Iranian father and his son. “And then I read this post and cried again because there is still hope and beauty.”