Brandon Stanton made his name on the streets of New York, capturing poignant portraits of strangers who bared their souls to him from Brooklyn to the Bronx for his popular photoblog Humans of New York.
But humanity at its most vulnerable exists outside the five boroughs, too, a concept Stanton, 36, is exploring in his new book Humans, which features hundreds of new portraits and stories from more than 40 different countries.
The book, which hits shelves Tuesday, was a labor of love compiled over 10 years of international travel to places like Japan, Thailand, Poland, New Zealand, Singapore and Jamaica, Stanton tells PEOPLE.
“It was all pretty spur of the moment,” he says of deciding where his journey was going to take him next. “It was more, ‘Where do I want to go next?’ In the way I do it, I don’t plan things very far out anyway. It’s just like, 'You know what? This month is kind of slow, so I’m going to be in Japan next week.'"
Though Stanton’s mission of tapping into humans’ innate curiosity through the lens of his camera remains the same overseas, he says the biggest difference in working abroad was the language barrier, as he had to rely on interpreters to get through to his subjects without comprising the delicate connection he’d forged.
He estimates that while his New York interviews average 45 minutes to an hour, the ones he recorded for Humans took twice that.
“So much of the interview is about making the person feel comfortable, and making it so that they’ll be at ease answering questions that can be very difficult, that require a lot of honesty,” he says. “So, so much of it is about energy exchange.”
Stanton is no stranger to mastering that so-called energy exchange; 10 years after launching Humans of New York, the Instagram account has more than 11 million followers, including a legion of loyal celebrity fans like Jennifer Garner and Gisele Bündchen, who often comment on his posts.
Late last month, Humans of New York made headlines for publishing a 32-part series about Stephanie “Tanqueray” Johnson, a woman Stanton first featured on the account in November 2019.
A series of recent health woes inspired Stanton to share Johnson’s entire story in full in an effort to raise money for her medical expenses — and the community responded by pulling together nearly $2.7 million.
Stanton says that after publishing thousands of stories, it’s Johnson’s that has impacted him the most.
“It’s the one I’ve worked on the hardest, I’ve been with the longest, and it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever told,” he says. “I knew people loved Stephanie, but [the response] was much more outsized than I imagined it was going to be… It’s hard to process what it means to go from $0 to $2.65 million… But I think she’s also very, very happy about it. She sounds very upbeat when we talk on the phone these days.”
Whether it’s a woman in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park or a couple on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Stanton says that if he’s learned anything, it’s that people are people, no matter where you are on the map.
“The work felt remarkably similar, remarkably familiar everywhere I went,” he says. “I think that was the biggest surprising takeaway across cultures, across demographics, across landscapes, economics, every single type of category you can imagine.”
He adds that his work has taught him that people are often willing to spill their most private and personal moments — if only someone would ask them.
“I think there is a very powerful urge and impulse in all of us to share our stories,” he says. “There’s something redemptive about it, there’s something therapeutic about it.”
Humans is on sale now.
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