A few weeks ago, a journalist met the President. The journalist was a blogger who took photographs and talked to people. He’s also the author of The New York Times bestseller, “Humans of New York.” His name is Brandon Stanton and, in late January, he managed to help raise over a million dollars for Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a school in one of New York City’s most impoverished neighborhoods… and helped the students and principal meet the President of the United States.
He told the story on a blog. He told the story through Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. And, above all, he told the story through photographs of people talking about life.
Stanton is making a living taking photos and reporting on things. He’s not associated with any media publication. He took the tools technology has made available and used them to make a huge impact.
Stanton’s success isn’t just inspirational, it’s a powerful indictment of the cynicism permeating the art world when it comes to social media, art, and the digital world.
A Blog, A Man, A Plan
Stanton writes in his book “Humans of New York,” that he got his first camera in January 2010. He had been a bond trader in Chicago, but lost his job that July and decided he wanted to take photos.
His parents didn’t really see photography as a viable career option. Who does?
In what can only be called such-a-stereotypical-thing-for-a-millennial-to-do-it-must-be-true, Stanton left Chicago in July to engage in what he calls a “photo tour” across major American cities. He took pictures and uploaded them to his personal Facebook account. Boom. Photo tour.
Stanton arrived in New York in early August. He had only planned to stay a week, but was already interested by the people there. He decided to stay for good.
Over the next few months, he decided that talking to people and taking their pictures was the most powerful way to represent New York. He started a Facebook Page, “Humans of New York.” Growth was slow. But then he decided to try out Tumblr, where Stanton writes that he was given huge support from the website’s editorial team.
Stanton started interviewing the subjects of each photo. This was a great combination: a wonderful portrait, a snippet of a life story of people living in New York City.
Today, “Humans of New York” has 2.1 million followers on Instagram and 12.1 million followers on Facebook.
Money & (e)Motion
Stanton is making a living from Humans of New York. His book, published in October 2013, was on The New York Times bestseller list for 28 weeks, reaching #1 a few times. The philanthropy from this art project has ranged from helping a family get a house to bringing awareness to Hurricane Sandy, refugees from Iraq, and, most recently, helping a Brownsville principal be recognized for her tireless dedication to her students.
If you’re a writer or an artist, you probably have some conflicted feelings about the Internet. Writers, well, we pine for a world where we can actually get paid for words again. Paid reviews, opinion pieces, and journalism have all been flattened by the stampede of bloggers, the sheer number of people now writing. People can get news and opinions for free, so “media” just isn’t what it used to be.
And photography? Wow, forget it. There are millions of stock photo sites and millions of amateur photographers are posting their stuff on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and, sure, even SnapChat. Photos that are taken in a second and forgotten in a half-second.
In the digital world, it seems like art has become more of a junk food than anything else. Except… except… what about “Humans of New York”, an art project that made use of all these channels but still got recognition and money and fame and all the things so many artists blame the Internet for taking away?
New Forms, New Futures
“Humans of New York” is created through a medium that is natively digital in form and function: instant photo-journalism in a social model. Stanton uploads several pictures (“interviews”) a day. They’re emotional, they’re visual, they’re quick to experience and read. In short, they’re perfect for a digital medium.
Now, typically, that seems wrong, as if demeaning the integrity of each photograph. You could spend hours and hours getting the right photograph, but people look at it and scroll by it in about two seconds. The “Humans of New York” Instagram account has over 2,800 photos – people – alone.
The real effect of this project is the art in aggregate. The power of “Humans of New York” is showing the humanity behind every stranger on the street. People are sharing these captured moments with each other on social media all of the time, growing the exposure of each portrait exponentially.
By pairing photos with human stories and connecting them across a human-digital medium, Stanton found a secret formula and tapped into a deeper truth: despite all the nail-biting about digital’s dehumanizing effect, digital is still a window into humanity around the world… or, in this case, around the block.
People want to see what other people are like. But, before Stanton, no one was really going up and asking ordinary people questions about their lives and capturing that moment in real-time. At least not in this exact way, through this exact channel.
Stanton has pioneered a new kind of art form by virtue of combination, not content.
Popping the Cynicism Bubble
It’s easy to feel cynical in a world where musicians are getting paid pennies by Spotify and authors are trying to give books away for free to gain recognition instead of money.
Stanton has carved a new path. The “Human of New Yorks” book proves that photography and print books can still be explosively successful and profitable. It’s a matter of rethinking the concepts and finding the right combination.
Few journalists write stories that get them a ticket to the White House. But through photos, human stories, social media, and fundraisers, Stanton did it all.
Artists and writers may not be able to recreate the model that helped Stanton. Yet he’s proof that digital tools can actually enhance and grow art. He’s proof that people still care about “art” when it’s presented and communicated and represented the right way.
The question, then, for all artists and writers and musicians, is simple– what’s the right way for you?