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The photographer behind 'Humans of New York'

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
updated 11:46 AM EDT, Fri October 18, 2013
The website Humans of New York has earned nearly 1 million followers by sharing touching stories with just an image and a few words or sentences about the subject. Click through the gallery for highlights from <a href='http://www.humansofnewyork.com/book' target='_blank'>the new "Humans of New York" book</a> based on the website.<!-- -->
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Image No. 1: "Just to let you know, I'm out here promoting my company. I know you wanted my photo because you thought I was a grown-ass man sitting around with a puppet." The website Humans of New York has earned nearly 1 million followers by sharing touching stories with just an image and a few words or sentences about the subject. Click through the gallery for highlights from the new "Humans of New York" book based on the website.

Image No. 1: "Just to let you know, I'm out here promoting my company. I know you wanted my photo because you thought I was a grown-ass man sitting around with a puppet."
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Brandon Stanton launched the photo series Humans of New York three years ago
  • His work is popular on Tumblr and Facebook, and it features short stories with images
  • A book of Stanton's images, "Humans of New York," published this week
  • Next year, Stanton will be publishing a children's book, "Little Humans"

(CNN) -- The website Humans of New York has been called a lot of things since Brandon Stanton, a bond trader-turned-photographer, launched the popular photo series almost three years ago.

What it's not, he says, is a photography blog -- a collection focused just on the images or shooting technique.

"The people and their unique stories make the pictures interesting. On their own, they wouldn't have the same impact," Stanton, 29, said in a phone interview this week from his home and studio in Brooklyn. From there, two assistants help him post and maintain the social media accounts he uses to share his diverse images of New Yorkers.

Check out CNN Photos, CNN.com's photography blog

Stanton, who grew up outside Atlanta, says he has refined his approach to focus on storytelling in the few years since Humans of New York took off on Tumblr.

It's a formula that seems to work no matter where he goes. Stanton is best known for his images of people from the streets of New York, but some of the work of which he's most proud comes from a trip to Iran in 2012.

People often remarked upon how his images "soften" and "humanize" the tough image of New Yorkers, "so I thought what would it be like to apply that effect to a place that is feared," Stanton said. Now, about 50,000 of the website's 1.5 million Facebook followers are from Iran, he says.

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This week, his first book of images, "Humans of New York," was published. Here's an edited transcript of a conversation about the book, his rise to fame and what else has changed in the three years since he began to look at his fellow New Yorkers in a different way.

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CNN: How did the book come about?

Stanton: Whenever you get a large body of work like Humans of New York, a natural pathway becomes to put it between two covers.

I wanted this to be a very nice keepsake. A lot of work went into it, and a lot of fans are attached to it. I wanted the book to be a piece of art and not just a cost effective way of repackaging the material for mass consumption.

CNN: How has your approach changed since you began?

Stanton: The approach to the concept started out purely as photography blog. In the first year, I was just taking pictures without captions.

Then I started having interactions in streets, and they were evolving to the point where now I can't call it a photography blog because the storytelling is so vital. The approach to the work has changed in that way.

CNN: How do you approach people?

Stanton: My approach is something that has evolved after getting rejected dozens of times. I say as little as possible now. I don't explain the blog up front unless they ask. I just kindly ask for people's photos, and if they ask what it's for I explain the blog to them.

It's easy to over-explain yourself, and it's not really the words you say -- it's about the energy you give off. It took me a long time to learn that. I was always looking for the right way to explain myself, but it's about how calm you are and how genuine you are. Now, I try to be as natural as possible.

CNN: Are you still eating cat food and living on very little, as you told Tumblr last year?

Stanton: I'm no longer eating cat food. I've moved up to high-quality dog food.

I'm joking. I'm no longer scrambling to pay my rent every month. I still have a roommate, and I live in (Bedford-Stuyvesant), and though nothing in New York is cheap, it's relatively inexpensive. I enjoy my lifestyle now, but I have no need to upgrade.

The book deal is not substantial in the book world, but it's substantial in terms of my life. I have two book deals, one for (this week) and then a children's book called "Little Humans" (due out next year).

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CNN: How do you make money? There are no ads on your Tumblr, obviously.

Stanton: I did one big commercial job. I've turned down tons of jobs from pharmaceutical companies, alcohol, credit cards, but I did extensive commercial work for Amtrak, nine days in seven different cities. But I didn't announce it on the blog. I emphasized to them that I would not be promoting or advertising it on HONY. I will do work as a photographer but will not rent out HONY.

CNN: What are some of your favorites?

Stanton: I always have a hard time answering that. Any HONY picture in isolation (doesn't) give the feel of the project. The feel of the project is the scope.

A friend of mine said it's all about the slow burn, it's all about me getting out there each day and approaching people and putting together a huge spectrum of people.

That's what makes it special rather than any technical proficiency or any single shot.

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