Humans of New York began as a startup photoblog by Brandon Stanton, capturing strangers in everyday moments of their lives: enduring a divorce, playing with a friend, experiencing loneliness. It inspired people from its advent in 2010, and since then Stanton has produced two books, filled with stories that are sometimes as ordinary as, “I hate fractions.” Somehow, even the simplest stories spark something in humans around the world who follow Stanton’s page, and now, in his seventh year of discovery through photography, Stanton sat down with Jerk’s Caroline Cakebread to discuss his inspiration and life lessons.
Jerk: What inspired you to start the original photo census?
Stanton: The short answer is always I got fired from my job, and I wanted to basically create a life around something that I really enjoyed, and at the time the thing I enjoyed doing the most was photography. My goal was to find a way to make just enough money to pay my rent and photograph all day long, and I struck upon this idea to do this crazy photo project where I was going to take 10,000 photos of people in NYC and plot them on a map. I would post these photos that I was taking every single day and this huge audience sort of grew around it. It didn’t take long before I just completely ditched the idea of the photo census and said you know the way this is working and the way the audience is interacting with it is kind of as this daily blog of humans in New York City.
Jerk: Do you have any advice for students who want to pursue passion projects instead of traditional desk jobs after graduation?
Stanton: One thing that I say is, if you want to follow your passion, ironically discipline is much more important than passion because the passion will wear off. The reason HONY was so successful was because I was extremely disciplined about it. I went out and photographed every single day, whether I felt like it or not and because of that, I was able to create this unique job where I get to do something creative and artistic every single day. But the reason I was able to do that was because I treated it like a job. I worked very hard on it, and I took it very seriously, and I don’t think a lot of people are willing to do that. I think a lot of people view following your dreams as an excuse to not work when in reality doing it correctly is nothing but hard work.
Jerk: You’re out on a nice Sunday in Central Park, how do you go about choosing whom to approach?
Stanton: When I first started I was looking for visual cues, so my work early on was very colorful. Sometimes it was quirky and eccentric but now that it’s become all about the energies and the stories, what I’m looking for is someone who looks like they have time. Normally that’s someone who is alone, who looks like they are resting or sitting down and is approachable.
Jerk: You did a tour with the United Nations in the Middle East, were people there just as willing to share their stories?
Stanton: More willing actually. Nowhere have people allowed me to take their photo more than in the Middle East. I think my trip to Iran I probably stopped over 100 people and four or five of them turned me down. Whereas if I’m here in New York, maybe half of the people will turn me down, and sometimes everyone turns me down. The Middle East culture emphasizes hospitality. In New York people see it as rude if you approach them on the street and ask for their time, whereas in the Middle East it’s kind of flipped on its head—it’s rude to refuse a request from a guest in your country or a stranger.
Jerk: Do you have any political or other goal with HONY?
Stanton: I feel like the work gets weaker the more I try to put an agenda into it. I think what people really value and connect with is the randomness of it. The thought that you’re approaching these people and you’re learning their stories on their terms, and not using them to try and make a point of some sort. Sometimes themes can’t help but emerge. If you’re interviewing a population of prisoners, for example, obviously socioeconomic and social themes are going to emerge. It might seem like they are coalescing around some political statement, but it’s not something I try and go after.
Jerk: Do you have one story that stands out?
Stanton: I don’t know, so many of them are so funny and so many of them are so sad, but then there have been the ones that have really made me cry like the pediatric cancer ones and the refugee ones, so obviously I can’t forget those. And then there have been the ones like Fatima that raised a lot of money and had a huge impact, so it’s hard to pick a specific story because I just like them for different reasons.
Jerk: Do you keep in touch with any of the people you’ve met?
Stanton: Some of them naturally, but you know, I’ve met 10,000 people so keeping in touch with them is like trying to keep in touch with an entire city of people. Maintaining HONY as an individual is a massive amount of work, and so the need to find new stories and the need to create new content sometimes makes it difficult to keep and maintain relationships not only with people who I used to photograph, but also with people who are close to me.
Jerk: So you’re a one-man show?
Stanton: Just me, just a dude.
Jerk: How are you able to get people to open up so much?
Stanton: First, I’ve done this 10,000 times, I’ve stopped 10,000 strangers on the street. There’s something to be said about that, it’s very difficult work. One of the reasons it can be difficult is because a lot of people say no. When you’re out in a foreign country and it’s 100 degrees and everyone is saying no, it’s very taxing on your emotions and your energy. A big part of stopping people so much is that I can be very calm and relaxed, and it makes the other person calm. If I was very nervous, or if I was very pushy or aggressive, the people I was interviewing would reflect that energy back to me. But I’ve done it so much that I can be very present and I can be very calm and it feels like a conversation.
Jerk: You hear a lot of painful stories, how do you detach from it all?
Stanton: For a lot of the people that we interview, this is the first time they’ve been able to talk about something that was really bothering them. The last story I posted was a man whose son stole from him. And the entire time he kept stopping and crying and going again and stopping and saying thank you thank you for letting me talk about this, I’ve needed to talk about this for so long and I haven’t been able to talk about this. And so the fact that listening to someone’s story is something that helps them and contributes to their life offsets how sad the story is. Even though it’s sad, I think there is something healing for the person, being able to unburden themselves, and being able to be there while it happens, for me, offsets the tragedy many times.
Brandon Stanton will also be speaking on the Syracuse campus on Monday, March 6.