The Human Behind ‘Humans of New York’

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<Brandon Stanton

Brandon Stanton is the human behind the photography site Humans of New York. With his camera, he treks across New York, snaps shots and tells stories.

Stanton built an interest in photography while attending the University of Georgia. He majored in history and tutored student athletes when he decided to make a documentary about college sports.

“I just picked up a camera,” Stanton, 29, told the Free Press. “Where I first started training my eye was when I was filming. You can see a lot of early threads of Humans of New York in my college days, when I was making that documentary.”

In that time, he didn’t think he would reach the level of success he has now. And he certainly didn’t expect DKNY to use his work internationally, without his permission.

A HONY fan sent Stanton a photograph of the infringement. A DKNY store in Bangkok was displaying his work without proper licensing or payment.

“It appears that inadvertently the store in Bangkok used an internal mock up containing some of Mr. Stanton’s images that was intended to merely show the direction of the spring visual program,” DKNY social media representatives wrote on Facebook. “We apologize for this error and are working to ensure that only the approved artwork is used.

This incident was not the first between Stanton and DKNY. Last month, the fashion retailer offered him $15,000 to use hundreds of his photographs in window displays. Demanding more money, Stanton eventually declined the proposal. He refused to work with DKNY because other photographer friends had told him that he should have been offered more money.

Stanton and DKNY settled out of court, and the money has gone to positive use. In lieu of settlement reparations, Stanton asked that DKNY donate $100,000 to a YMCA in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn so that the kids who use that facility could go to summer camp.

DKNY only donated $25,000 in Stanton’s name. Though he was grateful, he still wished more money could go to the YMCA, so he created a link on his site to raise more funds.

“YMCA is a real pillar of a community,” said Stanton. “I’m in there every day and I see how many kids are going in and out of there, doing projects and things like learning to swim, and I’ve seen firsthand how much of a difference it makes.”

Stanton’s devotion to struggling communities comes from his love for the city. New York is where he finally sought his photographic passion. Before moving to the city, he traded bonds in the financial sector. Chicago paid the bills, but New York fed his calling. He began taking out his camera and photographing people he passed.

Stanton recalls that the adjustment took a while. At the beginning, few people wanted him to photograph them. He would give prospective muses his long personal back-stories and rundowns of what he wanted to do with their portraits.

“When I first started, I was fumbling my way through, and they would be walking,” he said.

Stanton grew calmer toward passersby over time. And as a result, more people seemed willing to be profiled, even without necessarily knowing about his blog. Now three years after starting Humans of New York, he said, about two-thirds of those he asks to photograph accept his offer.

Humans of New York has become a collage of the city’s residents and tourists alike. Stanton views his project as biographical.

“Biographies are a high form of history,” he said. “They get into nuances and intricacies.”

To little surprise, Stanton’s favorite literary works are biographies. He sees interest in everyday human life. It is with that same affection that he chose to turn a copyright controversy into a chance of boosting the Bed-Stuy YMCA.

This article was originally published in The New School Free Press and can be viewed here.

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