New York Stories

New York Stories – and the people who tell them… and the photographer who reports them

Review of Humans of New York: Stories

A photo-book by Brandon Stanton

Humans of New York: Stories front coverBrowsing the photo-books in a bookshop recently, looking for a birthday present, I came across this volume. I picked it up and leafed through it and thought it very attractive, but not quite what I was looking for as a present. I also thought it was rather expensive, but it stuck in my mind.

A few days later I found it again, in another shop, and picked it up and carried on leafing through it. The layout and quality of the book is attractive and the photos are portraits of interesting looking people. Best of all, attached to each photo are stories about the people portrayed. But, no, I still thought it was too expensive.

New York Stories: book coverThen I came across it again, and I decided, OK, by the rule of threes I am obliged to buy this book. What the hell, it’s only money. And indeed it was only money – but now it’s a big, beautiful book of photographs and stories on my bookshelf. A book it took me four days to read even though it’s a photo-book. (I rationed myself; I took it slowly.)

10,000 people

According to his website, Brandon Stanton – the author and photographer – moved to New York in 2010 with the intention of becoming a portrait photographer. He set himself the task of photographing 10,000 people. Apparently he started by just taking the photos for himself and then branched out into sharing them on Facebook. When people responded favourably, he took it a step further and set up his website and started posting in various other social media outlets. (He now has several million followers on Instagram alone.)

After a time he started asking the people he was photographing for quotes to caption their portraits, and went the further step and began to interview them. Humans of New York: Stories is his second volume. The first was just Humans of New York. This is what he writes in his introduction.

Humans of New York did not result from a flash of inspiration. Instead, it grew from five years of experimenting, tinkering, and messing up… The first Humans of New York book… included some quotes and stories, but largely it represented the photographic origins of HONY. It provided an exhaustive visual catalogue of life on the streets of the city. But soon after it went to print, it became obvious that another book was waiting to be made – one that includes the in-depth storytelling that the blog is known for today. This is that book.

New York stories

It is a wonderful book: 428 pages of photographs and stories. Some of them pithy one-liners…

New York Stories: Snap it quick“You’d better snap it quick because I’m jumping on the first thing that comes down this track.”

“I’m late for a show. You can try to take my photo while I hail a cab.”

“I’m trying to write a book based on myself, but I keep changing.”

“I started taking heroin to get away from the draft, then I joined the army to get away from the heroin.”

New York Stories: Not a thing about me“You’re not find out a thing about me”

“Our agents set us up.”

“I’m a science writer. I like anything complicated.”

“I shouldn’t have moved in with him just because I was lonely.”

Others are longer pieces – some of them linked to 2 or more photographs.

New York Stories: It just happened“I wasn’t planning on it happening. It just happened. I don’t know what to say. I lost about 10 or 15 pounds during the affair, just from the stress. The longer it went on, the more the other woman wanted to control me – that’s how they always get. She wanted more and more of me as time went on: ‘Come over,’ ‘Let’s do this,’ ‘Let’s do that.’ It got more and more difficult to hide. I’d been with my wife since we were 16, so she knew something was up. One day she just straight-up asked me, and I said: ‘Yes.’ It was almost a relief. There was crying, screaming, yelling. All my shit went out on the lawn. Then it was back in the house. Then it was out on the lawn again. But we went to therapy and we got over it, and she forgave me. I think.”

Dialogue

Sometimes there are dialogues between the photographer and his subject:

“Studying the brain is like working in a toy store. Nothing could be more fucking fun.”
“What do you think is the greatest weakness of the brain?”
“That’s a lousy question! I’m not answering it.”
“Why is it a lousy question?”
“What do you want me to say? Road rage? That we get pissed and shoot people? That the newest parts of our brain should have been in the oven a little longer? How is that going to help you? If you ask a crappy question, you’ll never get a decent answer. You need to ask smaller questions – questions that give you a pathway to finding some more pertinent information. The major advances in brain science don’t come from asking crappy questions like, ‘What is consciousness?’ they come from microanalysis. They come from discovering pertinent information at the cellular level.”

Leaf through

New York Stories: Leaf throughI just leafed through the book again there and disappeared for 10 minutes. It’s such a fascinating document. For anyone who takes photographs – for anyone who is interested in the stories that people tell – the book is catnip.

I’ve always admired people who can take street photos – portraits of strangers – and then talk to them. I’d like to know how Brandon goes about that. Does he take candid photographs and then talk to his subjects, or does he ask permission first? Some of the pictures in the book look so completely unstudied that I think he must take them without asking. Others are clearly posed.

How?

In a review of his first book in The New York Times, a journalist, Julie Bosman, describes following him around for a day to see what he does. She writes:

He does everything he can to warm up his potential subjects, wearing a backward baseball cap, gray hoodie and New Balance sneakers to look casual. When he approaches a stranger, he hunches over or squats down, sometimes sprawling his 6-foot-4 [1.95m] frame on the sidewalk.
“It’s all about making myself as nonthreatening as possible,” he said. “I lower my voice, I get down on the ground.”

So that’s what he does now, but I wonder if it was always how he worked.

New York Stories: FireworksMy other question, to which I haven’t found an answer, is how he gets his subjects’ permission to publish their photos. Does he have some sort of a printed formula he gets them to sign or does he just count on them not complaining? This is especially relevant for the photographs he’s taken of young children. (Though the captions sometimes suggest there’s a parent just out of frame.)

Better on paper

New York Stories: Brandon on the flyleafAs soon as I realised Brandon Stanton had an Instagram account, I started following him. Here’s a strange thing. I don’t find his photos on-line nearly as appealing as the ones in his book. I don’t know whether that’s because as he’s become more famous he has changed his style. (Apparently he lives by his photos now.) The verbiage of the stories he reports now seems to overwhelm the photos. It could be the format, or it could be that the photos in the book are a “best of” selection. Or perhaps he is still evolving as a portrait photographer – and has evolved in a direction I’m less willing to follow.

No matter, I’ve got the book now and I’m sure I’ll be dipping back into Humans of New York: Stories for quite some time to come.


Is Humans of New York: Stories expensive? It may be expensive in bookshops, but I’ve since discovered the book on-line at half the price I paid for it.

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The Saint Job Fair – a September event

The Saint Job Fair in Uccle: giants, a brass band, death and the baker, a boy in a bubble, a jousting knight and a sleeping cat… among others things

About the middle of September, all around Brussels (and for all I know around Belgium too) fairs are taking place. Some of them seem to blend into the weekly markets (such as the one at Place Flagey), but others are unique to themselves. There are sideshows and performances, parades and music, and some take the opportunity to promote a local district or municipality. My guess is that they have developed from harvest festivals in much the same way as Thanksgiving in the USA, but as local rather than national affairs. Last year, my first September in Brussels, I simply registered what was going on. This year I thought I should get out with the camera and take some photos.

The waterbearerThen came the question – where to go? Up the road towards the city centre, the Parish of Saint Giles (Parvais Saint-Gilles) was advertising a major effort with processions from four different starting points in the municipality all leading to a celebration of Les porteuses d’eau (the women waterbearers). I was tempted.

Then I saw that my own municipality was offering the “129th Annual Market of Saint Job”.

I’m not sure why the Old Testament prophet is dignified as “Saint” Job in this corner of Belgium. A trawl through the Internet doesn’t leave me much the wiser (though I really doubt it has anything to do with the Orthodox Saint Job of Moscow, Wikipedia). But I’ve always had a soft spot for Job, so Saint Job’s market won the toss.

Giants of the Saint Job FairThe Belgians have a fascination for géants – giants. This seems to be a tradition that has hung over from the Middle Ages. Every district of Brussels has its own giants who are wheeled out (literally) every year for these fairs. They also make occasional appearances at other spectacles and events to represent the spirit of their district. At the Saint Job fair the two principle giants were a fellow in a bicorn hat and a curly-haired blonde. The two had a couple of half-sized giant children who orbited around them.

A parade in a tubaSeveral of their helpers (the people necessary to manhandle them over cobbles and kerbs) were also dressed up – as you can see from the photo. They looked like toys the giant children might want to pick up and play with.

Of course, you can’t have a parade or a festival without music, so there was a brass band on hand. In this photo you can just make out the tuba-distorted reflection of the male giant at the head of the parade.

Saint Job Fair: A break from blowingThe band had a lot of blowing to do, so they were happy take a break now and again. Here on the steps outside the church. (I think they’d want me to remind you, by the way, that the saxophone was invented by a Belgian – Adolphe Sax. You can post your heartfelt thanks below in the comments. Or not. As you wish. 🙂 )

Saint Job Fair: Posing for the cameraApart from the parade and the giants there was an exposition d’animeaux de la ferme. (This was one goat, one donkey, some chickens and a small selection of child-magnet-rabbits).The donkey was very obliging and happy to pose for photos when other people pointed their cameras at her. Me, she turned her back on.

Saint Job Fair: Pony go roundThere were also some ponies that had been coralled into an area like a small roundabout, and were walking around in a circle. Each had a small child uncertainly perched on top. There was a recorded – very distorted – voice blasting out a message in French. A message punctuated with the sound of a cracking whip and a “Yeeha!” I just can’t feel convinced by a “Yeeha!” when it’s part of a sentence in French. I’m probably deeply prejudiced.

Saint Job Fair: With death by my sideThe inevitable stall for face painting meant there were quite a number of kids running around with startling faces. The one that startled me most of all was this young man’s face. He was watching with intense interest as this baker demonstrated his craft. You could buy samples of the bread once baked, but personally I found the presence of death at the baker’s side a bit off-putting.

Sleeping cat lyingThere were other things for kids to do at the fair. They could visit the exposition de chats d’exception. A lot of very indolent pedigree cats in travelling cages. The cat show took place in a rather a dark, enclosed hall, so I came away without any photos. On my way home, though, I met a street cat I know who was happy to let me photograph him in his favourite place, on warm tarmac under a parked car. By way of a fill-in photo for all the siamese and persians I missed.

Saint Job Fair: Boy in a bubbleThere was a piste d’agilité vélo, a bicycle obstacle course, overseen by two dour police officers. It didn’t look a lot of fun and certainly while I was there, didn’t seem to be attracting much interest. By contrast kids could also get their parents to pay to have them zipped into plastic balls in a paddling pool. This looked to be really popular. It gives a new sense to the Boy in the Bubble.

Saint Job Fair: At the tourneyIt didn’t surprise me that so few kids were interested in the bicycle obstacle course, though I was disappointed so few wanted to try out the medieval jousting. However, I was patient and eventually a happy tourney rider showed up to reward me.

I hung around the fair from about 11 a.m. until 14.30 hoping to get some photos of the concours du chien le plus sympathique. I like sympathetic dogs – and these were very sympathetic dogs remember.

Saint Job Fair: The Green ManUnfortunately for me it seems everyone likes sympathetic dogs . (Well, of course. I should have guessed.) Probably the most well attended event of the fair, by the time the parade started the crowd pressed too densely around the stage. I tried, but there are no photos I want to share.

So I gave up. I was actually on my way home when I met another giant. Not quite in the same league as the official ones, perhaps, but he had a charming face and happily posed for me to take a photo. This Green Man was standing on stilts. He was about as tall as the bicorn hat giant’s shoulder.

That was my visit to the Saint Job Fair.


I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Comic Strip Festival

The Comic Strip Festival in Brussels has become an annual event that attracts comic fans from across at least the Francophone world.

Mysteries revealed

If you hang around long enough, mysteries will be revealed. Apparently.

TheSupercargo with presumed Atomium mascot - perhaps Spirou?Back in the spring I visited the Atomium here in Brussels (and wrote in May about the time-slip I experienced there). Entering the Atomium building I was accosted by a mascot and a photographer and paid my €7 to be able to share this photo. I wrote after: The mascot doesn’t appear anywhere on the Atomium web site, so I’m guessing it was all in aid of advertising something else – but I have no idea what.

Spirou

Comic Strip Festival: Inflating the balloon characters 4 - Spirou sittingWell, now I think the mascot was supposed to be Spirou. Spirou is a Belgian comic strip character and protagonist in the comic strip series Spirou et Fantasio… He also serves as the mascot of the Belgian comic strip magazine Spirou.

OK, I know this because I’ve just looked Spirou up on Wikipedia. But I was prompted to look him up by meeting him in various guises all over the place at the weekend.

Comic Strip Festival: Inflating the balloon characters - SpirouSpirou was big at the Brussels Comic Strip Festival. I’m not just talking about the Spirou-shaped balloon whose crotch the young man is groping in the photo. There was a whole section in one of the festival tents dedicated to this intrepid bellhop-come-boy-reporter. Every other person seemed to be wearing Spirou pill-box hats.

Tintin surprised(And I’ve just gone through all my photos and found not one to back up that last statement. Not one!)

Mind you, I’m still no wiser about what Spirou was advertising at the Atomium in May.

Fête de la BD/Stripfeest

Comic Strip Festival: Things to leave outside
Comic Strip Festival: To leave outside…

The Fête de la BD/Stripfeest as the Comic Strip Festival is called locally is pretty big. I don’t mean it can hold a candle to Comic-Con in the USA (judging by all I’ve seen on YouTube), but in Brussels, it’s an event. It spreads over the whole weekend, it occupies the big park opposite the royal palace, it attracts comic fans from across at least the Francophone world. And on the Sunday a parade of inflatable characters winds through the city to the sound of  walking  bands.

For all these reasons it seemed appropriate to take myself and my camera off to the park on Sunday.

Inflation problems

According to the programme I found on-line, the parade was supposed to leave the palace courtyard at 2pm. When I arrived at 1:45, though, it was obvious some of the characters were suffering inflation problems.

Comic Strip Festival: Inflating the balloon characters - Garfield
Garfield lay on his back and Le Chat was face down, levitating a metre over the cobbles. A gusty wind wasn’t helping.
Comic Strip Festival: Inflating the balloon characters - Le Chat
I’d seen ads for volunteers to help manhandle the balloons through the streets and I suppose most of the inflation teams were also volunteers. I could have waded in to help, but, nah. They would probably manage better without my interference.

I think these soldiers below would have liked to help out too. (Sadly, we’ve become all too familiar with scenes like this over the last few months.)

Strip Cartoon Festival: Security presence

In the festival ground

So I went for a walk through the festival. Four long tents occupying avenues through the park, each filled with stalls dedicated to cartoons. You could buy vintage cartoons and new; vintage “merchandise” and new.

Comic Strip Festival: Collectors cornerOr you could meet cartoonists and stand in line for an autograph. Or join a master class.

Strip Cartoon Festival: Workshop 2You might meet characters in costume for a photo op.

Cosplay - Alex the boy legionaire and friends

(I think that’s Alix in the middle with Julius Caesar and Alix’s sidekick Enak from The Adventures of Alix.)

And you could read – read – read – read…

Strip Cartoon Festival: Reader 1
Strip Cartoon Festival: Reader 2
Comic Strip Festival: Reader 3
Comic Strip Festival: Reader 4
I don’t really know what was going on below here – although at a wild guess it had something to do with Marvel Comics.

Comic Strip Festival: The Marvel Mobile

Absent friends

There were noticeable absences. Apart from the van above (if it really was from Marvel), almost nothing from the world of English comics. (Nothing till the parade anyway.) Nothing obviously from Japan or South Korea either. I came away with the feeling of having seen a world that was at once familiar but alien. Which is kind of what you want from a festival that predominantly celebrates fantasy and science fiction. But it’s kind of disturbing too.

I wonder if French speakers get the same frisson visiting English language conventions.

The Comic Strip Band

The photographer in me was also a bit disappointed that there were so few people in costume. Cosplay is such an eye-catching feature of Anglophone events nowadays. Fortunately there was this band of pirates. They played first to keep people’s spirits up at inflation square, and then walked in the parade.

Comic Strip Festival: Band of pirates 1
Comic Strip Festival: Band of pirates 3
Comic Strip Festival: Band of pirates 5At last the parade got under way, and finally here were a few familiar faces. From Star Wars: BB-8,

Comic Strip Festival: BB-8 BalloonRey,

Comic Strip Festival: Cosplay - Rey… and Darth Vader.

Comic Strip Festival: Cosplay - Darth VaderI think Darth Vader is a little like Father Christmas. It’s amazing how he can get around and be at so many events in so many places all over the world. (And the galaxy.) Not a lot like Father Christmas, of course. Just a little.

And look below here, from Tintin – Thomson and Thompson.

Comic Strip Festival: Cosplay -Thomson and Thompson

There was a real problem getting the balloon characters out of the park and across the road into town. The electrified tram lines were a serious barrier.

Comic Strip Festival: Getting the balloons under the tram linesBut once their wranglers had wrestled them down and under, the parade could proceed.

Comic Strip Festival: Le Chat balloon in processionAnd I think the wranglers felt a real sense of achievement.

Comic Strip Festival: Handling the balloons is funAh! Look! That guy to the left is wearing a Spirou pill-box hat! You see, not fibbing.

Comic Strip Festival: Le Chat leads the flags


I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The Sleeping Homeless

The sleeping homeless - behind Square Jaques Brel
The sleeping homeless – behind Square Jaques Brel, Brussels, a sunny afternoon (Saturday 3rd September 2016)

Alas, poor Yorick

Alas, poor YorickAlas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest whose response to life I fain would emulate…

I am not posting a blog entry this week as I am on holiday. In Denmark, in the tourist information centre at Helsingør, as far as the photo above reveals.

Below, in unnatural pose, I am supposed to be looking at Helsingør’s Kronborg – Shakespeare’s Elsinore – there in silhouette on the horizon. There’s a Shakespeare festival taking place there all of August.

John and ElsinoreNot that I actually visited Elsinore on this trip. But more of that when normal service is resumed – next week if all goes according to plan. And the weather gods permit.

Louisiana view through a rainy windowHave a great summer!


I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.