Brandon Stanton, the Photographer Who Captures Our Humanity
"Following your dreams correctly is nothing but hard work."
Brandon Stanton has spent the last decade of his life capturing the stories of complete strangers through his blog Humans of New York.
It all began in 2010. Recently fired from his finance job, Stanton picked up a camera and hit the streets. His initial goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers and plot the pictures on a map of the five boroughs.
“Somewhere along the way, I began to interview my subjects in addition to photographing them," he says. "And alongside their portraits, I'd include quotes and short stories from their lives.”
Those stories have been called "confessional works of art." Stanton catches people in various moments of time — from their most vulnerable to their most philosophical.
His photography project eventually evolved into a loyal following of more than 25 million followers on social media. In the last decade, people have shared intimate stories of strength, addiction, humanity, redemption, regret, and love.
Stanton wasn't trained as a photographer, and he had no professional experience. "It seemed like a stupid idea, just taking pictures of people on the street,” he said. “But there’s a comfort, an affirmation, a validation in being exposed to people with similar problems.”
As a result of his dedication to telling the fascinating stories of complete strangers, Humans of New York has touched millions of readers over the years and turned into one of the best places on the internet.
Here's how Stanton turned his passion project into an international phenomenon.
On creating intimacy: Stanton has a superhuman ability to create a high level of intimacy that allows his subject to open up in a matter of minutes. Strangers often tell him, "I don't know why I'm telling you this," but they do anyway. In this profile, you learn about Stanton's origin story and why he's so good at what he does.
On doubling down on his passion: After he lost his finance job, Stanton decided to give his real passion a go. Even though he had no money, no training, and no experience, he picked up a camera and began taking pictures. "My friends and family thought I was crazy," he writes. "I’d only had six months of photography experience, yet I was moving across the country to be a photographer. Despite the absurdity of the decision, I felt confident." Learn to trust your gut.
On being human: Stanton's New York City-focused "photography project" evolved into a storytelling phenomenon that has taken him all over the globe. He's captured the life stories of people in Iraq, Dubai, Ukraine, Pakistan, Jordan, Uganda, Vietnam, Israel, and more. His new book Humans provides a familiar portrait of our shared human experience.
On approaching strangers: If you want to see Stanton in action, watch this. In this video, he re-creates how he would approach a stranger in the street. "Over time, I learned it has nothing to do with the words I was saying," he says. "It has everything to do with the energy I was giving off." He smiles, his voice gets higher, and he makes sure he has open body language. This is a masterclass in approaching strangers in any situation.
On building the nicest place on Earth: One of the most remarkable things about HONY is its wildly supportive community. Underneath every portrait on Facebook, there are comments with several thousand likes that bring out the best in humanity. They are always positive, respectful, and non-judgmental. "The bottom line is that mean people get bored with Humans of New York, and they don't participate," Stanton says. "You're left with a community of supportive people without which HONY wouldn't exist."
On his storytelling process: In this TEDx Talk, Stanton explains why mainstream news doesn’t actually reflect reality, but rather, our interests. Here’s why Stanton chose to photograph regular people living regular lives, and why those stories are way more exciting than the ones we hear about in the news.
On carving out your own path: Most photographers are passive — they don't interact with the subject; they just capture the moment. In the beginning, Stanton did the same because he was paralyzed by a fear of speaking to strangers. "Because I overcame that fear, I created something not a lot of people could do," he says. In this speech, Stanton walks us through the journey from the very first picture he took all the way to what Humans of New York has become today.
On his empathy for regular people: In this Tim Ferriss episode, Stanton opens up about his humble beginnings and why he was so fascinated by regular people. "I believe that people are inherently good," he says. "And I’ve traveled to 30 or 40 different countries." Through his empathy, Stanton has been able to put the spotlight on individual people and show that we all "share the same soul."
On the hard work of dreams: Stanton's competitive advantage is that he believes no one can outwork him. "I really do think that this is America, and you can achieve your dreams, but not if you use following your dreams as an excuse to not work hard," he says. Creativity isn't something you can just wait around on — when you start doing the work, ideas will follow.
On how to talk to strangers: How is Stanton able to get people to reveal such intimate details in such a short amount of time? The secret is being open to rejection. "If you want to talk to strangers, and if you want be comfortable talking to strangers, the only way to do it is to approach them while you’re uncomfortable," he says. "You have to earn the comfort through being uncomfortable many, many times."
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Find your focus: We all have periods where we lack direction and feel unsure what to do with our lives. Stanton says the antidote to listlessness is focus. Stop looking at the big picture. "People get stuck because they want to accomplish too big of things, and they don’t know the right step to take," he says. His advice? Rather than focusing on the year ahead, focus on mastering the next 24 hours. One person who did this masterfully was Benjamin Franklin. Stanton suggests picking up his biography and studying the way he structured his day for maximum focus and productivity.
Study the paths of the people you admire: If you have a certain life path in mind, he says, look to those who came before you. Do you want to participate in social movements? Study Martin Luther King Jr. Do you want to be president? Pick up Robert A. Caro's biography on Lyndon Johnson. A great exercise is to ask yourself: “Who has lived my dream life?” Identify that person, research their life, and figure out how they ultimately reached their goal. Don't only focus on the triumphs though. Ask yourself if you would be willing to sacrifice what they sacrificed and fight the fights they fought.
Start something that's solely for you: Have you ever asked yourself the question, "If I could do anything with my time, what would I do?” If the answer is your current job, then that's great news! But if it's not, take time to ponder that question. After he got fired from his job, Stanton took a walk and the answer that emerged had nothing to do with financial markets — he wanted to explore photography. We all need something that gives us immense personal pleasure. "I was desperate for something to do on the weekends that would give me this foothold in my brain where I had a sense of purpose and a sense of identity outside how the markets were doing every single day," Stanton says. If you recognize yourself in that statement, it's not a bad idea to start a project or side hustle that nourishes you and gives you life.
Ideas breed ideas: When he first started, Stanton knew only two things for sure: One, he loved portrait photography, and two, there were a lot of humans in New York. His first idea was to photograph 10,000 people in New York City across all five boroughs and plot their photo on an interactive map. But over time, Stanton realized that his conversations with strangers were so interesting that he wanted to include a small quote with each picture. Then, the conversations turned into Q&As which turned into hours-long "probing, therapeutic and psychological interviews." The point is that HONY would never have become what it is today if Stanton hadn't just started. It's better to start with a bad idea and iterate along the way than wait for the perfect idea to spring into your brain.
Stop obsessing about the end goal: When we start something new, we often start with a grand vision that can easily overwhelm us. That's a mistake. At first, Stanton had this sweeping goal of photographing 10,000 people. "I was dumping about 30 or 40 of these portraits every single day onto this website that no one was going to," he says. It wasn't until he started posting a photo a day on Facebook that people began to see his daily dedication to honing his craft. "And the focus of Humans of New York moved away from this giant, sweeping project that was going to cover the entire city of New York, and it switched much more to the individual," he says. If you only care about the end goal, you're not going to enjoy the process.
User your passion as a shield against negativity: In the early days of HONY, Stanton battled bouts of insecurity after daily rejection, negative comments, little money, and stagnant growth. "Whenever I started to think, 'Is this gonna work? Is it not gonna work,' I’d just go out and photograph," he says. "That was my only way of keeping those wolves away of, 'Is this ultimately going to be a success? Am I wasting my time? Am I stupid?'" When doubt crept in, Stanton used his all-encompassing love for telling people's stories as fuel to carry him through the dark periods of his life.
Vulnerability is only possible through patience: Stanton uses the following three questions when he meets a stranger: "What's your biggest struggle?" “How has your life turned out differently than you expected it to?” and “What do you feel most guilty about?” But it's not the questions that elicit vulnerability — it's being 100% present. "You’re 100 percent there, you’re 100 percent listening to them, and your questions are 100 percent coming based on curiosity about what they are telling you and nothing else," he says. This technique doesn't only work with strangers. It allows us to have better, more raw conversations with our closest people, too.
Start before you're ready: Stanton wasn't always good at talking to strangers. In fact, he was horrible at it. But he's now done it so much that it's become a part of his identity. "The only way to get to that place where you can have that rapport with a stranger is not by studying interview techniques," he says. "It’s by sitting with thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of strangers until nothing feels strange about it anymore." Want to be a better writer? Write every single day. Want to be a better public speaker? Do it until you feel comfortable on stage. Here's the only way to reach your goals: Start by being "scared as shit" and do it "over and over and over and over and over and over again."
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“Doing anything less than something amazing is squandering this whole reason that you’re here.”
"Following your dreams correctly is nothing but hard work."
"I'm always looking for a story that represents them in a ways that represents nobody else."
“I find that the really impactful stories in our lives are normally paired with extremely strong emotions.”
"You know you're an artist when you can recognize beauty."
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