Brandon Stanton, the founder of the popular “Humans of New York” blog, spoke to students about storytelling in an event hosted by the University Program Council on Friday, Feb. 26, sharing what led to the creation of the blog, and why connection is so powerful for humanity, especially in the age of the digital world.
Stanton started the blog after a series of events that left him kicked out of college and living with his grandparents, which led him to working as a trader for two years before being let go. He said the day he lost his job was a surprisingly good day because it stripped away the false identity his work gave him.
“The one you have to be careful about is when you’re working for that sense of identity, and that sense of being important in other’s eyes,” Stanton said. “That creates a disconnect between what your soul wants to be doing.”
Stanton said that when he lost his job, he was done playing the game of trying to be an important person.
“For the next foreseeable future, I’m going to choose an activity just because I love it,” he said. “I’m going to start with how I spend my time, and build my life around that, as opposed to: I’m going to make my money, become successful and then do what I want to do.”
For Stanton, that was photography, a hobby he practiced on the weekends as a distraction from his job.
“I loved it because it felt like a treasure hunt to me,” he said.
Stanton said he thought it was too late for him to get really good at photography, so he shifted his focus to getting good at approaching strangers to take their photo.
“I’m going to find something I love just because the activity itself in the moment is so fulfilling, and I’m going to try to make just enough money to where I can eat, live and do that all day long. And it was that decision that Humans of New York was built on,” Stanton said.
Stanton said he was full of anxiety the first time he lifted his camera to snap a portrait of two children on a subway looking up at something.
“They had the exact same sense of wonder in their eyes, and I thought that was beautiful,” he said.
For Stanton, taking photographs of people felt meaningful, and like art, so much so that he felt it was the only thing he wanted to spend his time doing.
“It was all just because I loved it,” Stanton said. “People get so off track because they start with the likes, they start with the following, and they don’t start with the love. When you start with the love, and it’s truly about the joy, everything evolves organically.”
It was this feeling that gave him the courage to leave the familiarity of Chicago, and to move to the largest and most diverse place he could think of: New York City, where he sought to photograph thousands of strangers in an attempt to become great at approaching people, and building connections.
“The idea I had that brought me to New York City was I was going to photograph 10,000 people on the streets of New York City, and somehow that seemed like success to me,” he said.
Everything started to change, Stanton said, when he met a lady dressed in green. Stanton took her photo, but thought the quality of the image was poor, so he decided to add a caption to spice things up.
“So do you do a different color every day? No, I used to go through different stages. But then I found that I was happiest when I was green, so I’ve been green for 15 years,” the caption wrote, dated Dec. 11, 2011.
Stanton said it was his most-liked photo, and he realized in that moment, people resonated with her words.
He asked himself: “Why not use that opportunity to learn about the person? And share what I learned, the persons’ story, with thousands of people who follow me that might be interested in the strangers around them, but are too nervous and too afraid to approach these people themselves. And that became the heart of Humans of New York. That’s when it stopped being about getting 10,000 people, and rather about learning about them.”
Quickly, Stanton shifted from spending a few moments to a few hours with each of his subjects.
“Something happens when you listen to understand. People feel valued and honored,” he said. “It might be a drug addict or a homeless person. It might be somebody that has nothing to offer but their story. This story is the only thing. And to have somebody to sit at their feet and listen to them and say, ‘That’s important to me and that’s very valuable to me. Just what you’ve been through. Your life is very valuable to me.’”
Over the past 10 years, the “Humans of New York” blog posted over 5,000 photos and has gained nearly 20 million followers on social media. In 2013, Stanton compiled 500 of his photos and stories and published them in his first book titled, “Humans of New York: Stories.” Stanton said the day his book became number one on the New York Times Bestsellers list was the best day of his entire life.
“All these things that have just branched out, they all share the seed of just things that I’m doing because I love to do them. I love to do them. I love to do them,” he said.
Hana Pham, UPC’s Diversity Education Chair and the host of the ‘Humans of New York’ event, said approximately 50 students attended the Zoom webinar.
“The goal is always education,” Pham said. “I think when we select our events we look for who can bring the most diverse set of events, and we try to get a little bit for everyone. I think this one was for some journalism students, some photography students, and further umbrella’d into authentic storytelling.”
Pham said this was her first time hosting a UPC event, and Stanton was the perfect person to interview.
”I think he was so genuine and the way he absolutely just loved what he was doing,” Pham said. “His underlying message was that he came from the bottom and that he started from nothing and the only thing that really guaranteed his success was that he loved what he was doing wholeheartedly.”
Stanton still continues to photograph and interview strangers in New York City but has shifted to mostly FaceTiming his subjects in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I still go back to that thing I was looking for when I got fired,” Stanton said. “Still the thing that I love the most about my life and the most about “Humans of New York”, is that in the course of the day, I get to spend my time doing an activity that is meaningful in itself, and removed from any sort of compensation, and any sort of acclaim, and any sort of attention I might get.”