The simplest ideas often create the biggest waves. This is certainly true of Humans of New York (HONY), arguably the most prominent photoblog of the last decade. The backstory of the blog and its creator is one of uncanny timing, creativity and sheer determination. After a serendipitous encounter in Görlitzer Park this summer, Brandon agreed to share his story with LOLA and give us a snapshot of what it’s like to shape something that is deeply personal yet instantly recognisable to millions across the globe.
The way in which this feature came about is almost as uncanny as the way HONY itself started. Brandon was in Berlin collecting stories for his latest HONY book when our Editor-in-Chief Jonny bumped into him in his local park. After a long chat – in which Jonny and his Chihuahua ended up being photographed for the blog – Brandon agreed to an interview. As you’ll see, this kind of chance meeting seems wholly appropriate given HONY’s evolution.
Fast-forward a few weeks and I’m sat in my kitchen on a drizzly Sunday morning talking to Brandon on FaceTime. He’s seven hours ahead in Tokyo and has just wrapped up a busy day of interviews. I’m fresh out of bed and nursing a coffee. After joking about how our call came to be, we get down to the business of how HONY began back in 2010. “I was working in Chicago as a bond trader and I lost my job, I was looking to do something more creative,” Brandon says. After scraping together the funds to buy a still camera, he started testing the water in the Windy City, snapping anything and everything.
“I kind of gravitated towards taking photos of people, specifically stopping people on the street and taking portraits of them. That’s when I had the idea I was going to move to New York,” he says. Brandon’s original plan was to photograph 10,000 people on the city’s streets and plot them on a map. But he started to notice something interesting when publishing the photos online. “I was naturally having conversations with the people I was photographing, so I started adding these little quotes above the photos. It became very evident to me that people were more interested in these interactions than the photos.” This is the moment that HONY became a platform for telling people’s stories.
The ensuing years saw HONY skyrocket in popularity, accumulating around 27 million followers on Facebook and Instagram combined. The average number of likes for a post on either platform registers in the hundreds of thousands. Did Brandon ever imagine that his project would explode in such a way? “No, not at all,” he admits. “The only social media around in 2010 was Facebook, and it existed as a way to connect with friends. It wasn’t a place that you could post content on. So even the possibility of reaching this many people didn’t even exist when I first began.”
I’m curious to know what Brandon attributes the boom to. What is it that makes HONY resonate in an age where content is king? “There are so many things. One was just right place right time. I got out in front when there were one billion people on Facebook and not many people creating content on the platform,” he says. Brandon points out that HONY’s birth coincided with the arrival of Facebook Pages, a development that made it much easier to share content with a wider audience.
Along with technological conditions coming to fruition, HONY managed to capture something zeitgeisty. I suggest this to Brandon and he agrees, adding that he thinks about this a lot. He feels that the blog flourished because it tapped into the spirit of early 2010s America. “It was zeitgeisty, though I wouldn’t say it is currently. It came out during the Obama era, a time when the zeitgeist was very much ‘things are improving and all problems are solvable if we can only understand each other.’”
Crucially, Brandon says that HONY managed to pack an “emotional punch in a way that also dovetailed with the way people were consuming content, which was in very short form.” And delivering a highly distilled story within a set amount of characters takes time. “Even though it seems natural, like I’m just meeting people and these things are coming off the tip of their tongue, it’s a very painstaking process,” Brandon adds.
Finding The Arc
A huge amount of work goes into producing content for HONY. Not only does Brandon travel for the blog, he also spends hours searching for participants and editing their stories. However, he insists that the crux of HONY’s uniqueness is his approach to interviewing. “The heart of the art is the interview process, it’s not the photos or the text. My photography is OK. It’s that this magical thing happens on the street,” he says.
For many of us, getting a total stranger to share their most intimate secrets is a daunting prospect. This dread is something Brandon is familiar with. He even suggests his early encounters were barely even interviews. Approaching people cold and finding the “arc in their life that makes for a compelling story” is a skill he’s had to hone. “To be able to do that in a short amount of time and have that person feel comfortable was the main craft I developed. It’s different from any other kind of interview because I’m starting from zero every time,” he says.
Armed with a resolve to make each story better than the last, Brandon has arrived at a place where he’s able to structure a narrative while he’s interviewing someone. “It’s this forensic process where I’m sitting down with somebody and creating a story through getting these details, truths and revelations out of them, one spoonful at a time.” And having repeated this process on an almost daily basis for the past nine years, it’s little wonder that he’s a pro.
Given that Brandon has conversed with thousands of people, I’m curious to know what makes a good HONY protagonist. “Struggle. I want the person to have overcome something that’s transformed them in a way. That’s probably the most reliable arc you’re looking for when interviewing somebody,” he says. Although Brandon points out that not all HONY posts deal with topics of a weightier ilk, he does suggest that the “most impactful stories are about people working through and processing the conflicts and struggles in their lives.”
It’s hard to disagree with Brandon. Struggle resonates with us in a profoundly human way. It’s visceral and will touch all of us at some point in our lives. Over the years, HONY has charted strife in all its guises. It’s shown people facing and overcoming real hardships. It’s dealt with difficulties that are close to home, and some that aren’t. It’s this that makes me wonder whether Brandon sees parallels between his role as an interviewer and that of a therapist. Although he does see similarities, his task is “to tell a person’s story in a way that makes sense to other people.”
This doesn’t mean there isn’t a duty of care attached to Brandon’s work. And he’s aware of this. “I do feel the responsibility of having this large platform. There was a time when I was more careless, and I wasn’t fully aware of the toll of being so vulnerable on a platform with millions of people. It’s a very intense process. When I came to understand that, I became more sensitive to the emotional experience people have when they’re on the blog.” In an age of trolling and internet ire, it’s encouraging to see how many comments on HONY posts are supportive. For Brandon, the blog’s positive vibe stems directly from its audience. “The culture on the blog is amazing; without it, it wouldn’t be possible for people to be vulnerable,” he says.
The culture on the blog is amazing; without it, it wouldn’t be possible for people to be vulnerable.
Picturing The Future
Towards the end of our conversation, I ask Brandon about his time here in Berlin. Did it stand out from anywhere else on his travels? “Not really,” he says. I can’t help but laugh, feeling a little daft for asking such a simple question. Brandon reassures me this is a good thing. “I love when my work feels familiar, I want the language to be the only thing that’s different,” he says.
“I really enjoyed Berlin and the conversations I had there. They felt like conversations I was having in New York, but just through an interpreter and in German. I love my work the most when I can go somewhere where the culture appears to be so different yet once I get into those conversations, they feel very familiar. It was no exception in Berlin,” Brandon stresses.
I ponder whether this familiarity is due to some universal thread that ties HONY’s subjects together. Brandon says it’s something he gets asked a lot, but it’s not what grabs him as a storyteller: “I’m looking for the opposite, I want to know how this person is different from anybody else I’ve talked to.” The temptation to ask whether Berliners differed in some way is too strong, so I go ahead. “HONY doesn’t involve context. It’s starting from zero, not from a detailed knowledge of Berlin’s history. It’s about sitting down in front of someone in a vacuum and asking what their biggest struggle is,” Brandon replies.
This search for freshness in every story has taken Brandon to 45 different countries. It’s the reason he’s currently in Japan collecting stories for his upcoming book. At this point, I ask Brandon how HONY has altered his world. “Obviously, materially it’s changed my life, I’m travelling around the world right now and sharing art with millions of people, when 10 years ago I was completely broke and living with four strangers I’d found on Craigslist,” he says.
With two best-selling books to his name, regular public speaking gigs, and an active Patreon page, Brandon clearly has a steady source of income. And it’s fair remuneration for someone who devotes every single day to their work. That’s not to mention the millions of dollars HONY has raised for numerous charities to date. But what are the more nuanced changes? “I guess my understanding of people’s willingness to disclose, the need and almost requirement they have to share their experiences. This notion of privacy is very much overblown in society,” he says.
Beyond the book, Brandon mentions that he has a few projects on the go, including a documentary. He concurs that it’s quite tricky to find time for anything other than HONY. “It seems mad that I’m doing anything else than HONY,” Brandon says, “but it just feeds my artistic curiosity to find new mediums and challenges.”
The conversation wraps up where we began. Where does HONY fit within the current climate, and what does the future hold? “I’ve resisted pivoting into what I believe is the current zeitgeist because I don’t think my work naturally fits into that kind of confrontational tone,” Brandon says. He admits that his 2015 ‘Open Letter to Donald Trump’, one of Facebook’s most widely shared posts, politicised HONY in a way he “didn’t like the taste of.” “HONY is best when it’s without motive or angle, when it exists as a mirror for other people’s stories,” Brandon asserts.
The possibility of reaching this many people didn’t even exist when I first began.
Although he feels there’s something timeless about HONY, Brandon is less certain when pushed about hitting the zeitgeist twice. “It’s not something you can plan. You have to stick to your own voice and what you think is interesting. Sometimes that interacts with the prevailing energy of the age. It would have to be a different manifestation of my work; you can never do it twice with the same thing.”
Indeed, he must have done something right given all the copycat photoblogs that have surfaced since HONY’s arrival. He laughs when asked about this, saying he’s “pretty zen about it.” By chance, HONY recently featured the founder of Humans of Amsterdam. “I asked her to interpret for me in Amsterdam, so I spent several days with her, she’s lovely,” he says.
After an hour on the phone, I’m left with the impression Brandon won’t be sitting still. His parting piece only confirms my suspicion that he’ll continue to push HONY’s boundaries. “For me, the key to longevity is not only continuing to differentiate your work from other people but also from your previous work. That will always be my goal. How can I continue to tell the stories of ordinary people in ways that are even more unexpected than what I’ve done in the past?” We’ll see how Brandon refocuses HONY as the aperture begins to open on the 2020s.
Read more at humansofnewyork.com