“When you’re telling your own story, it’s hard to know where to start.” Brandon Stanton has dedicated his life to telling other people’s stories on his blog Humans of New York, or HONY, as it’s known to its nearly 17 million followers. What began as an idea to photograph 10,000 people on the streets of New York City has led to a wildly successful Facebook page. Not to mention three New York Times best-selling photography books, a 50-day tour of 10 countries sponsored by the United Nations in 2014, visits to the Oval Office with students and educators featured on the blog, and millions of dollars raised for causes brought to light through people’s stories.
On Feb. 9, Stanton told his story in Battell Chapel as a Poynter Fellow in Journalism. He started with his windy path to success, explaining, “I was a History major at the University of Georgia; I didn’t go to Yale. Then I flunked out of Georgia, went to community college, got my life back on track, and then—just through this connection I had—I was offered a very prestigious job in Chicago trading bonds.” Stanton recalled obsessing over his work while he was a bond trader. “I spent two years thinking about nothing but making money,” he said. Then, after he was fired, Stanton experienced what he calls “the most momentous moment of my life.”
“I made the decision that from here on out I’m going to try to make just enough money where I can do what I want with my time,” Stanton said. “That was a real profound reorientation of perspective for me.” The key for Stanton was to stop viewing time as a means to obtain other resources and instead to look at time as a resource in itself.
What Stanton enjoyed doing most with his free time was taking pictures. “The whole reason why I’d gotten my first camera was to relieve the stress of work,” he said. One day, he took a photo of two young boys and their mothers riding the subway together. Looking back at the candid shot, Stanton realized that if he could continue to approach people and ask to take their pictures, he could create something unique. Not many people approach strangers on the street. While he never harbored hopes of becoming the best photographer in the world, he had always considered himself creative. So he started approaching strangers and asking to take their pictures constantly. He began in Chicago, and then traveled to a few other cities to take portraits before he decided to take his project to New York.
The original concept for HONY was simple: Stanton would move from Chicago to New York City in order to take 10,000 portraits of people on the streets and plot them on a map. When he got to New York in 2010, just as he obsessed over trading, Stanton started obsessing over his photography. When he first moved to the city, he only ate two meals a day and didn’t go out to clubs or bars. He spent his time taking photos all day, every day.
Originally, Stanton only took portraits, which he posted with very minimal captions, if any caption at all. Stanton first posted a quote alongside a photo for a picture of a woman wearing only green. He was unsure about posting the image, which he described as nothing special, but recalled that the woman said something interesting: she used to go through stages of wearing different colors, until she discovered that she was happiest in green. “I’ve been green for 15 years,” she told Stanton. He decided to put the photo up with her comment. The photo received significantly more attention than any of the previous posts, and Stanton took note.
Almost six years later, Stanton emphasizes that the blog as it is today is entirely different from the blog that he set out to create. “Humans of New York today is not really about photography,” he said. “It’s about telling stories.” The blog has evolved to become a platform for marginalized voices to be heard. Stanton has traveled to Jordan and Turkey in order to interview Syrian refugees and recently released a series of stories featuring inmates in five federal prisons across the Northeast.
Today, Stanton interviews his subjects for 45 minutes to an hour and then takes their picture afterwards. He’s often asked how he gets people to share such personal experiences with him. He explained, “The reason why Humans of New York has so many followers, why it has such an impact, is that through approaching thousands of people, I learned to do it in a way where I can create a moment of intimacy, compassion, whatever you want to call it.” He calls this environment the “bubble,” in which people feel genuinely heard and validated.
Stanton elaborated on why people may feel compelled to share in the “bubble,” saying, “There’s something cathartic and easy about telling your story to someone who has no preconceptions of you against which to weigh your opinions or judge your experiences.” Stanton noted that he might be the first person that someone has talked to seriously for months. And not only does he talk to his subjects, he really listens to what they have to say.
On the blog, stories are told through captions posted with portraits. Sometimes, a story will be told through multiple captions and different portraits. Many posts go viral—some of the most popular photos have hundreds of thousands of “likes.” President Obama even commented on a portrait of a Syrian refugee, a man known as “The Scientist” to HONY followers, welcoming him to the United States.
One audience member asked whether the stories of the thousands of people that Stanton has interviewed ever blur together for him. “You do start to notice themes,” conceded Stanton. For example, the 20 year old whose goal is to travel and whose biggest struggle is figuring out what to do with his or her life—“I’ve had that conversation a thousand times,” he said. The key is to discover the telling details that make each person’s story unique. “As an interviewer and a storyteller,” he explained, “my entire interview process is aimed at getting through that blur.”
Stanton’s ability to connect with people makes his content unique, but the format on which he shares it is similarly compelling. Why is it that HONY has flourished on Facebook, a social media platform that is essentially made up of people captioning and posting photos of themselves? After all, HONY does something really similar, doesn’t it? Turns out it doesn’t. The things that people reveal to Stanton aren’t the things that people would post on their own profiles—and that’s exactly why it’s so popular. In an online space that can seem like a never-ending highlight reel, it’s refreshing to see the truth of people’s stories come to light through Stanton’s Facebook posts.
Towards the end of the talk, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Stanton was positioning himself for the audience in Battell while telling his story. At times, he lapsed into giving us the highlight-reel version of HONY—and understandably so—There are a lot of highlights to choose from – he’s seen so many incredible things, heard so many amazing stories, impacted so many people’s lives, and visited so many countries.
But he also made a point to get through the blur of his own successes and reflect on the low points he faced early on. As cheesy as it was, one of the most powerful moments of the talk came when he addressed the students in the audience about failing. He ventured that many in the audience may be so used to success that a fear of failure holds them back. He warns against that, reflecting that if he had feared failure six years ago, “I would have tried to plan all the risk out of it.” Without risk, HONY would never have become the personal yet massive platform it is now.