Formats Unpacked: Humans of New York

How a simple format became universally loved

Hi All,

Hope you’re all having a great week.

Before I get into this week’s unpacking, here are 5 formats I’d love to see fans of unpacking:

  1. The TV show ‘Taskmaster’

  2. A favourite explainer or ‘How To’ format

  3. ‘The Daily’ New York Times podcast

  4. The ‘xkcd’ comic

  5. A favourite newsletter

If you’re a fan of any of them would like to unpack them do get in touch. I’d love to see your take on where the magic is in each of them.

This week it’s me doing the unpacking…


What’s it called?

Humans of New York (photoblog and book)

What’s the format?

Humans of New York is a photoblog and book of portraits and interviews collected on the streets of New York City. Each photo is accompanied by a single quote from the subject of the photo. Over the years this has expanded to include photo series stories, themed stories, and other cities around the world. 

What’s the magic that makes it special?

The magic is in the juxtaposition of the intimacy with strangers set against the backdrop of a huge city we know so well. These strangers bring humanity to the city they represent through stories that span the spectrum of human emotion. And they do so in the briefest of ways. Humans of New York is minimal-viable-storytelling at its best. 

Each story consists of nothing more than a single picture with a single quote, but it’s just enough to make the viewer feel as though the protagonist is speaking directly to them. We’re spared any unnecessary story arcs, dramatic backdrops, or interviewer intrusions. What we get is a story that someone had to get off their chest that day. Even if it means telling it to a stranger - in this instance Brandon Stanton, a six-foot-four photographer and blogger. Perhaps this tells us something about our desire for human connection, especially in big cities, where despite being surrounded by millions of people, it’s easy to feel alone or disconnected. 

Whilst they share equal billing in the title, the humans and the city are not jostling for attention in these stories. In a different set of hands, the storyteller might be tempted to give one of the most Instagrammable cities on the planet more screen space. But Stanton has the confidence to put the people front and centre, allowing their stories to plug the visual gaps left outside the frame. Great storytelling is about knowing what to leave out as much as it is about what to put in.

When Humans of New York started in 2010, social media was still in its infancy, and photographers shared their work on their own blogs. Now we view most of our visual content through the filter of algorithmic streams. Charlie Brooker describes this experience as like trying to watch TV with the contrast turned up to 10 and the knob removed. Our streams amplify and reward engagement and drama, drowning out the quieter moments of everyday life.

Whilst Humans of New York does have moments of drama, it shares more of these quieter moments that make human life so interesting- everyday people describing everyday life. We get to hear the stories of families and love and life that feel remarkably different to some of the more performative posts we devour in our streams. We get to know and understand the city, not from an individual’s perspective, but through this beautiful patchwork of human experience. 

Favourite Episode

This photo of a 12-year-old Vidal Chastanet ended up with a visit to the White House to meet President Obama after he cited his school principal as someone who inspires him. Following the photo, over $1 million was raised for student field trips. 

I loved the photo series of Stephanie Johnson, a 76-year-old burlesque dancer from the 60s and 70s, which contained stories of mobsters and the porn industry of the era. The story went viral and when Brandon posted that Stepanie was ill a GoFundMe page was set up raising $2.5 million in just a week. 

And the Green Lady

Similar Formats

The books ‘You Have Seen Their Faces’ by Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell, and Jacob Riis' ‘How The Other Half Lives’ were both pioneering photojournalism projects from the early days of photography that created social change.

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Whenever I mention Humans of New York to people it’s inevitably followed with “Oh I love Humans of New York.” Everyone knows about it and everyone loves it. That’s a remarkable testament to simple formats. If you’re doing a comms project around a specific location there might be something to be taken from Brandon Stanton's approach to letting the stories of the people tell the story of the place.

Thanks for reading. Leave a comment. Hit that heart-shaped button below. Tell me what formats you’d like to see unpacked.

Back next week,

Hugh