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Humans Of New York Founder On Being Present And Sharing Intimate Stories

Man sitting in front of drapes
Brandon Stanton, founder of Humans of New York, spoke with VPM reporter Dan Rosenthal.

Brandon Stanton is the founder of Humans Of New York, a popular photography and storytelling project with millions of followers. VPM’s Dan Rosenthal sat down with the author and photographer before a recent panel discussion at The Richmond Forum. He started by asking Stanton how the project came together after he was laid off as a bond trader in 2010. 

Full Transcript:

Brandon Stanton: I just wanted to find a way to pay my rent in New York City and be a photographer. And I had no experience. I had no contacts, I had no degrees, no certifications. So I was going to plot 10,000 photos on a map, like a digital map of New York. And I started adding those little quotes and the captions, the photos, it became apparent that people were much more interested in what I was learning about the people than the photographs, I was taking up them.

So you'd spend more time with them. And they tell you to start telling you more about them.

Stanton: And that has been the real evolution of the blog for the past 10 years. It went to be nothing but photos to little kind of quirky, funny quotes or thoughtful quotes that they might say, I used to photograph 30 people a day. Now I will photograph one or two, really digging deep into the events of their lives and the reflections that they have on those.

So how did the blog then turn into a best selling book?

Stanton: It just seemed natural again, a lot of it was just trying to pay the rent, I had all these photos and in these little quotes that are sharing on the internet still had zero dollars in my bank account and you know, a book always seems the most natural way to turn that into something that I could make money off of. But that was a hard journey in itself, because there were two general rules in the publishing world is that photography, books don't sell, and regional books don't sell. And so this was seen as a regional book of photography. So it was very hard for me to even get a publisher. Luckily, one took a chance on me, and it ended up well.

So that book, humans of New York spent 13 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and you've said yourself, you don't claim to be the world's best photographer and you don't claim to be the world's best interviewer. But it's an art to get people to tell a little bit about themselves. And I'm wondering what's the difference then between an interview with somebody And I just a conversation.

Stanton: It's it's a, it's a very distinct small energy. And I think you know, a lot of it has to do with kind of just being present, the moment that I am on the street is like kind of the closest thing to meditation that I have because you know, I'm very, I don't know if neurotics the right word, but I'm, you know, very consumed with, you know, the blog and in the future and what can go wrong? What do I need to do next? What about what have I not been doing enough? And the moment that I have with somebody on the street when I'm interviewing them, I don't have a single thought about myself. It is just intensely focusing on that person intensely focusing on that story. I'm not thinking about the next question I'm going to ask, I'm not thinking about this list of questions I need to go through and check on I'm just listening to the person and all of the all the questions that I asked that person is based on what they're saying. It's based on my own curiosity and kind of following their lead. And, you know, I think that's the difference between a conversation and an interview. One comes with a pre-packaged format and a plan. The other is organic, and just springs from curiosity and what the person is saying,

when you were doing your blog, how would you set out each day? Would you say I'm going to spend today talking to people in the subway? Or would you say I'm going to go to Penn Station or Central Park or the Lower East Side? How would you plan out your day,

Stanton: It's changed. In the beginning, I was trying to cover as much area as possible because they had that geographic element. I wanted to cover the entirety of New York City. It was much more about the city of New York than it was about the people. Um, I was trying to create this like photographic census. So I would try to pick a new neighborhood every day, would try to cover as much ground as possible. I probably walked thousands of miles in the beginning. Today, it's very different. I'm going to parks. I'm looking for one person sitting alone on a bench that looks like they have time and it's much more about going deep into that person's life. Covering a wide ground, sometimes you take pictures of people's faces, sometimes it's their feet or their hands. I've had to learn a lot while doing humans of New York and not just about photography, not just about interviewing, I had to learn what the ethics and best practices were of sharing stories of random individuals that didn't sign up for an interview that I approached on the street with millions of people every single day. And especially when those stories included very candid admissions, about not only themselves but about other people in their family. The anonymous interview emerged kind of out of that consideration, learning that it's sometimes best even if the person doesn't want to or has no interest in not showing their face, to conceal them, their face to protect them from the ramifications of that sort of exposure. There's nothing else like it and it didn't even exist. It didn't even exist 15 years ago to have millions of people not only consuming your story, but commenting on it in real time. It's a very emotionally intense experience.

You featured a young man be Donald chest and a and his principal Nadia Lopez, on your blog that led to a visit with President Obama in the Oval Office in 2015. With both of them, tell us how that happened.

Stanton: Um, organically just like all the other stories on the blog, I was walking in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and there was a young man and it was January is very cold. So he was like the only one out and I approached him. And one of the questions I asked, I asked him who was influenced you the most in your life? And his answer was my principal. Then he told a little story about her. The next day I went to his school and interviewed the principal and then I spent the next two weeks there and interviewing all of the teachers at that school and the audience raised almost $2 million for the school. And then at the end of that, um, we were invited to go to the White House and me the principal Miss Lopez is a power in her own right, and fuddle were given 20 minutes with President Obama. So yeah, it had this wild conclusion. But it started, just like all the other stories, which was a random person on a random street in New York.

One of Time magazine's 30 most influential people on the internet, the author of humans of New York and the sequel, humans of New York stories, Brandon Stanton, man, and thanks for speaking with our friends at the Richmond Forum. And thank you for visiting us in Richmond and visiting us at VPM. We appreciate it.

Stanton: Thank you very much.

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