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Inside the Mind of 'Humans of New York' Creator Brandon Stanton
"I just always felt that there was something interesting about the intimate portrait of a stranger on the street."
Brandon Stanton is part street photographer, part storyteller. He's spent the last 10 years of his life capturing the fascinating stories of ordinary people. He catches his subjects in various moments of time — from their most vulnerable to their most philosophical.
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.
He eventually began to interview his subjects and include a quote alongside their portraits. Stanton's photography project eventually evolved into a loyal following of more than 25 million followers on social media.
Stanton recently debuted his third book, Humans, which features the powerful stories of regular people across 40 different countries.
He also published a moving 32-post narrative on Stephanie Johnson, a 76-year-old woman who worked as a burlesque dancer named "Tanqueray" in the 1970s. Her health recently took a bad turn, so Stanton created a GoFundMe to cover her medical costs. Moved by her story, more than a hundred thousand people in the HONY community donated a whopping $2.7 million in a matter of weeks.
As a result of Stanton's 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.
Stanton sat down for an hour-long interview with The Profile, in which he explains how he develops intimacy with strangers, why his conversations are so transformative, and why it's natural for us to empathize with other people's pain.
This is one of the most comprehensive interviews Stanton has done in recent years. You can watch the full Q&A below:
If you prefer to read it, below is a lightly-edited transcript from our conversation:
Q: In 2012, you had 64,000 fans on Facebook. Eight years later, the HONY community has grown to more than 20 million people on social media. How does it feel to reflect on that?
STANTON: Whew. Well, I don't allow myself too much time for reflection, which might be a quirk of my character. The publication week for my third book just ended, and I texted my agent saying, "I don't know what to do with myself when I don't have anything to worry about. I need something to worry about at all times." So I'm normally obsessing over the next thing I'm doing as opposed to reflecting on the art of the career so far.
There's one story that I always tell to put into perspective how much the success of Humans of New York was outsized in relation to my expectation. I had been in New York for a few months, and I had been doing it every single day, trying to get traction, trying to get something going, and it really wasn't working. It's very hard to get that first core group of fans. This was at the very beginning of social media in 2010.
I remember my Facebook page started getting 10 new followers per day. I went to Central Park with my friend, and I told him, "If this keeps going like this, in three years, I'll have 10,000 Facebook fans." To me, that sounded like the biggest success that anyone could possibly ever imagine. Once those three years passed, it was something closer to 10 million. It was a thousand times larger than my definition of what success would've been.
There was one Christmas where all of your insecurities came crashing down, and you weren't sure this photography project would work. How did you keep your doubts at bay?
Just working. The Christmas you're referencing was the first one I was in New York, and I only knew two people in the city. During the Christmas break, the two people that I knew went home, so I was completely alone for two or three weeks. That was extremely tough. It was more of a loneliness thing than an insecurity thing, but I dealt with both of those in the exact same way, which is I went out and worked. It was the only thing that would keep me from the possibility of failing — and not just failing but failing in a very grand way. I had packed up everything I had, moved to New York to start this Facebook project ... to do something that seemed absolutely stupid.
At the time I was doing it, it seemed like the stupidest idea ever. There's that South Park episode about the underwear gnomes where the gnomes had this big plan to steal a bunch of underwear and somehow, that was going to equal profit. My friend always told me that I reminded him of the underwear gnomes. "So you're just going to take pictures of random people on the street and somehow that's going to equal profit? OK..." And that's how it looked for a long time. It looked very exotic, like I was doing something crazy.
I just always felt that there was something interesting about the intimate portrait of a stranger on the street. I felt that was compelling, and I felt that was interesting.
Street photography had been a thing for a while. Part of street photography sometimes included candid photography of people. There were much fewer portraits of people on the street where you stopped and asked them for permission.
I knew I was doing something new. I knew I was doing something that was compelling. I knew that if I made it my thing — if I owned that idea and I owned that space — that eventually the intrinsic value in how compelling it was would attract an audience large enough to sustain myself and make a living. That was my only goal at first — I just wanted to make enough money to continue doing it.
How did you make money in the very early days?
I was on unemployment. I had just lost my job, so I had a little bit of money coming in from unemployment. I got a few small odd jobs doing photography — weddings and little stuff like that.
The day my unemployment ran out, I did a print sale on Indiegogo, and it raised $30,000. And I thought, "This is going to last me three years." And then things started happening really quickly. The first view I got into how much social media allows you to scale was with Amtrak.
At that time, I had only been photographing for a year and a half. I wasn't that great of a photographer. I was still learning. But Amtrak asked me if I would do a shoot for them, and it was the only commercial job I've ever done.
They asked me how much money I wanted, and I go, "I don't know, you know? I'm just out here trying to make it. Whatever you think you could do would be great." It was an older lady, and I think I tapped into something maternal in her, and they ended up giving me $60,000 for two weeks of work. And to me, that was all the money in the world. All the money in the world. I thought, "I'm never going to have to worry about anything else with this for years." So that was when I finally started to feel secure.
For 10 years, you've picked up your camera day after day, year after year. You're the ultimate example of persistence and consistency. What has kept you going for so long?
In the beginning, it was just rock solid discipline, you know? And I can say that as somebody who flunked out of college and who, for the majority of my life, has not been a disciplined person at all. I flunked out of UGA because I wasn't going to class. I never had discipline, ever.
When I flunked out of school, I read Ben Franklin's autobiography. I saw how he lived his life and how structured and disciplined he was, and I started incorporating habits into my life. The first habit I formed was that I started reading 100 pages a day every day. I did that for years — even when I went back to school. I went back to the University of Georgia and ended up making straight As. Even during that time, I would read 100 pages every day on top of reading for school.
I started exercising and playing piano for an hour. And I did those things every single day for years, and then I got proficient at piano, I was in good shape, and I educated myself pretty intensely. But I think the most important thing that was happening during that time was that I was learning discipline. Not only did my habits improve me in many ways, but I also got very good at the skill of creating habits in my life.
So when Humans of New York came along, I knew taking a day off wasn't about the day of work that you lost, it was about breaking that habit. So no matter how I felt, no matter how insecure I was, no matter how lonely I was, no matter how sick I was, I went out and photographed every single day. For years and years and years, I posted four photos a day, every single day. And this is when Humans of New York was dovetailing with the rise of Facebook.
That discipline of posting and constantly putting it out allowed me to catch this wave that, in many ways, I'm still riding.
You've interviewed tens of thousands of people across 40 different countries. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about the human experience?
I think the most interesting way to comment on this is what I've learned about life as it is lived versus life as it is depicted in the media. I think what happens when we're consuming media is that we don't necessarily recognize the incentives that are involved.
Ultimately, media is a storytelling business. Even very hard news media, you know? You want these stories to be factual but, ultimately, they're stories. What sells subscriptions and what gets people to watch are the stories.
Knowing that the media industry is driven by stories, then you have to ask yourself — What are the elements of a story that make it most marketable and successful? And what makes a good story is sex, violence, and all these kinds of extreme things. They're the same things that make a Hollywood movie good.
So what happens is that when you're consuming the world through media, you're seeing the world through a lens that highlights and skews toward those extremes.
When you have someone going into a country to tell a story, they need to tell a good story to sell newspapers, so they're looking for elements of life being lived that are filled with conflict or violence. What happens is that you get a lot of sensational stories about terrorism or crime.
You form an image of these places that is much more frightening and extreme than you'll find if you get on the ground. The way I describe it is that 99% of life being lived has nothing to do with politics or crime, yet that's all we read about in the media.
If you stop people one-on-one and ask them: "What are you thinking about all day long?" There's very similar themes in those answers. We're mostly worried about our families — our son's drug addiction, our father's illness, our wife's struggles with alcohol. On the flip side, there's our daughter's graduation, the person we met and are wildly in love with — these are the stories that represent the life being lived.
Even in countries like Iraq and Pakistan where all you hear coming out through the media is about the conflicts going on, still 99% of life being lived is inside the home and is much more intimate and relationship-driven.
Why are you so intrigued by the stories of regular people?
First of all, that was all that was available to me, you know? At first, it was just necessity. I'm a guy with a camera and no photography experience — you think *The New Yorker'*s going to hire me? I was a guy with a camera wanting to be a photographer with no credentials and no experience so I had to work with what was available to me.
First, it was just photographing who was on the street, then I started interviewing people on the street, and then I started learning stories from people on the street. I got very good at that out of necessity.
What it's grown into is realizing that the social media audience of Humans of New York is a lot larger than The New York Times, it's a lot larger than The New Yorker. It's realizing that not only the stories of ordinary people hold attention, they can be even more compelling and relatable than stories of public figures and celebrities.
It wasn't as a result of me realizing that the stories of ordinary people would be more compelling and then pursuing that path. It was looking for any path — any path — and that was the only path available to me. In the course of getting very skilled at telling these stories, I realized that their inherent value was massive.
The photo of the Green Lady changed the trajectory of Humans of New York. Can you tell that story?
This is about six or seven months of just me eating, breathing, and sleeping and doing nothing but photographs. It was all I did, and it was starting to get a little bit of traction.
At the time, I was just getting photos of people, and occasionally, I'd be writing my own caption.
One day, I photographed this lady dressed all in green, and the next day I got sick and I couldn't go out and photograph. I was very disciplined at the time, so I had to put something on the blog, and I didn't have anything to post, but I had this picture of the Green Lady. It was a bad picture. I probably wouldn't have posted it otherwise because I really messed it up, but I decided to put it up anyway.
And then, I had remembered that she said something to me: "I used to be a different color every single day, but one day I was green, and that was a great day so I've been green for 15 years." I was just like, "OK, I'll just put that little quote above the picture." And I did, and it was by far the most liked picture I had ever put up, which was only like 100 likes at the time.
It was a eureka moment because I realized that people were much more interested in learning about these people than they were in seeing these people.
It's been 10 years of maintaining a very large audience on the internet, which is very difficult to do. It's difficult to hold attention at all on the internet, especially for a sustained amount of time. Looking back on it, one thing that I've always done is that no matter how much I've committed to a path, when I feel the wind blowing a different direction, I'm willing to drop everything and follow that wind.
I'll give you an example. I had already signed a contract for my fourth book, which was going to be a book of the remote interviews I've been doing [during the pandemic]. I was going to make a book on that, and I'm working on it, and then Tanqueray happens.
[The Tanqueray series] is something I wasn't sure would work — telling a 12,000-word story on Instagram and Facebook. I've never seen anybody else do anything like it. Seeing how well it did work made me realize that the audience was engaging with this material in a very deep way. It caught my interest, and I was like, "I think we need to stop this next book, and we've got to figure out how to do a book on Tanqueray." And I don't know what that's going to be, but that's the way the wind is blowing right now.
No matter how great one path seems, when another path opens up, you need to immediately drop everything and go down that path. I've done it multiple times over the last 10 years. I think that's why the blog has existed as long as it has.
There's been some valid criticism written about Humans of New York. There's been no criticism that's written about Humans of New York that still applied two years later. The work has always been evolving, morphing, and changing so quickly that you can never pin it down.
You talk a lot about randomness and chance when selecting the people you photograph and the stories that you tell. But how do you go about choosing a certain person over the one sitting next to them?
Humans of New York two years ago was all random. The one variable that I needed most was always time. I tried to choose as wide of a selection of neighborhoods as possible, but the one thing I needed from everybody was time. These interview take time. A lot of times they take an hour and a half. They're pretty intense.
So I would normally be looking for somebody in a state of repose, maybe they're sitting on a bench or maybe they're leaning up against a wall smoking a cigarette. Beforehand it was time.
Now, my selection process involves an inbox full of 20,000 stories. My assistant has cut them down a little bit to give me a fighting chance.
The work has changed so much recently because it was totally focused on the interview. Now, [with people e-mailing in their stories], the interview is much less important because so much of the information is laid out there. So I'm looking at the story, and I'm judging it based on the characteristics and variables that I've learned through experience. It can't just be a compelling story, but it has to be a story that's compelling and will work in short-form. It has to fit in 2,200 characters, which is the character limit on an Instagram caption.
You might have an hour-long conversation with someone. How do you decide which story or quote best represents them in that particular moment in time?
It's all contextual. Every interview's different. I don't ever have a list of questions.
The street interviews are a lot different than the remote interviews because the street interviews always start from zero, where I'm trying to identify the events and conflicts in their lives upon which I can build a story around. Normally, I'll let them lead the interview.
A lot of times I'll ask, "What's your biggest challenge right now?" or "What's the biggest challenge that you've overcome?" Chances are that the biggest challenge they've overcome is the thing that has formed them the most and the thing they've spent the most time thinking about. So not only is it going to be the story that's most impactful and material to their life, but it's also going to be the story that's given them the most perspective and insight into the world.
Everyone's an expert in their particular problem because that's what we think about the most. And everybody has a very distinct struggle in their life that they've been forced to compensate for and create solutions for. It's given them a very unique perspective on the world formed by that struggle.
If you can find what that person's struggling with, you can often find the one thing that they can speak to with more wisdom than anybody else.
You write: "Truth is often spoken haltingly. With pauses. Like it's being dug up, one spoonful at a time, from somewhere deep." How does it feel to be on the receiving end of someone's heavy truth?
People often ask me, "How do you listen to these sad stories over and over again without being affected?" I've done series in pediatric cancer wards and I've done series where I spent weeks with refugees, but I think there's something about a really good interview that's about the exchange. It's not just directed one-way, where you're asking questions and you're getting answers.
I think confronting a person on a very deep level and pushing them on things that other people don't push them on gives them the respect of listening very intently. Challenging somebody is a form of respect because it shows that you're listening so closely that you're noticing inconsistencies in their story.
So you're pushing them on it and you're pushing them to explain — not just to you but to themselves — why they've been holding this belief and why they've been thinking that. When you come from a place of such deep listening, there's no question that you can ask that's too private, too confrontational, or too personal because they can sense it's coming from this authentic place of pure curiosity and pure interest as opposed to asking these questions as a means to an end.
That place doesn't get reached in every interview, but it gets reached in every interview that makes it on the blog. There's something about knowing that I am benefiting from hearing this story and this person's also benefiting from telling this story. More often than not, at the end of the interview, both of us are thanking each other. I'm thanking them for telling the story, and they're thanking me for listening.
No matter how sad the story is, you feel like it was a very healthy thing for both people involved, and that's a good feeling.
And that's how a lot of the people who read the blog also feel, right?
And that's the interesting part of it. For me, when the conversation is over, so much of the magic has already happened. It's in the moment. It's on the street. It's these moments where you're going to places in somebody's mind with them for the first time, and it's good for them, and you're there watching it. It's a powerful thing, especially when it's something someone's been avoiding confronting for a long time. It's a magical thing.
The success of Humans of New York has been about translating the magic of what happens on the street in the one-on-one interview to the blog. But the magic's over before I even start typing, you know what I mean?
It's about re-constructing [the interview] in a way that maintains the person's voice and intent, while the photograph maintains their emotion. I like to capture people while they're talking because I want the audience to be there and feel what it's like to sit and listen to that person. The better I've gotten over the years, the more impactful the work has become.
Tell me about what sparked your friendship with Tanqueray, whose story captivated the nation. How did it all start?
That all started very organically. What was so interesting about it is that I've had thousands and thousands of conversations with random people on the street. Almost all of those have been within the framework of doing my work — I carry around my camera and I very systematically interact with random people.
I have to approach a certain amount of people every single day — a certain percentage of those people will say "no," a certain percentage of those people will allow me to do an interview, and a certain percentage of the interviews will be "usable." I classify a "usable interview" as one where the person felt comfortable enough to be honest. It's not about a person being interesting or not interesting. It's about their comfort level with the process.
Anyway, it's a system, and that's how I meet all the amazing people that I meet and have all these amazing conversations. What was interesting about Tanqueray is that I wasn't in that framework. I was coming back from the gym, I didn't have my camera with me, and I was soaking wet with sweat. It was one of those things where I didn't want to put on a sweater after I hopped off the treadmill. I just wanted to go home and take a shower. Even though it was really cold outside, I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt because it wasn't that far of a walk.
When I see her, she's got this huge fur coat. One thing I do is when I see someone who is of a certain generation that has put a lot of effort into their style, I make sure to tell them they look great. She looked exquisite.
I told her, "Hey, you look great," and she called me over and said, "Let me ask you something — why is it that you white boys always shorts in the winter?"
So that's what got me and her talking, and right away, she launched into all these stories. She asked me where I lived, and I pointed, "Right there." She then said, "Oh, that house used to be full of hookers." She spoke for 10 minutes before I ever got a word in. I think most people would be looking at their watch being like, "Oh my gosh, I've got to go somewhere." But being who I am and what my job is, I was like, "Oh man, this woman can tell some stories. This is crazy."
She will go for 60 minutes without taking a breath, so after 15 minutes, I said, "Can you just wait here? I can't explain it really but I run a website and I take pictures of people and tell their stories. Can I run home and get my camera and do a little interview with you?"
I got back, and she was still there. Humans of New York meant nothing to her until she started getting stopped on the street a couple of days later after I shared her post. So that began it all.
There was this frenzy after I posted her story. All these people wanted to make a television series or a movie out of it, but she wanted to work with me. She's a very smart woman, and she didn't need to see numbers on social media to know that something that this guy did had 50 people stopping her on the street in the course of an hour. That's what she got in her mind even though she probably still doesn't fully understand Humans of New York. That's her street smarts.
She took a few television and movie meetings, and at some point, I was thinking like, "This could be the best story I have the opportunity to tell. Why give it to somebody else? This is what I do." So we decided to make a podcast together. It was going to be a first-person podcast, and she was going to do it in her own voice.
That was our plan, and we did it for months and months. We met and did tons of interviews, and that's when her health took a turn for the worst, so I was like, "We can't wait. She needs help now." So I quickly re-tooled everything for the blog, which involved cutting out 60% of wild stuff, and that's how we got here today.
Tanqueray’s story was full of twists and turns and pain and struggle, but there was no regret. Why do you think it's easier for people to empathize with the pain more than the joy?
We connect much more to each other's pains than we do our successes. You look at social media, and it's a lot of people bragging about what they have.
A lot of the underlying energy is, "Look at what I'm achieving. Look at what I have. Look at what I've experienced that you don't have." And that is a separating energy. When someone is saying, "Look what I'm going through," that is a connective energy.
The one most singular emotion is pain. It's the one that can't be divided. It can't be split. There's all different types of happiness and peace and contentment, but pain is pain and hurt is hurt.
Even though it's got a hundred million different masks and faces, underneath it is the singular feeling of pain that people know. To really identify with somebody and have compassionate empathy for them is to identify pain in others — the same pain that you've felt even though it might not have the same causes.
I think that is why the story of other people's struggles and the story of Tanqueray's struggles, in particular, tapped in to such a nerve. To really know pain in other people is to know yourself in them.
Tanqueray's life story would’ve gone undocumented if it wasn't for a total stranger's curiosity and willingness to listen. I bet there are wildly interesting stories that exist within our own families. Why do you think so few of us take the time to ask?
Remember that my interviews are within the structure of my work.
My own wife says, "Maybe you should be asking me [those questions]." There's something about intimacy — something about being really close to somebody — that makes these difficult conversations tougher to have. I'm going to figure it out one day...I've been thinking about it a lot.
Why is it so much harder for me to ask my mom and my wife and my brother these questions that I ask of a complete stranger? On the flip side, why is it so much easier for a complete stranger to tell me these things than it would be for them to tell their mom or their brother or their sister?
I'm going to figure it out one day, but my thinking so far is that relationships are tough. It's really hard to make a close relationship work. You get to a place where everything is working, the ship is sailing along, and you become really afraid of introducing new truths and new information that is going to change that dynamic and throw it off course.
There's something about intimacy, something about the proximity you have to another person, that makes these searing questions so much harder to ask than if you don't know them at all. And on the flip side, they're so much easier to answer if you don't know the person asking them at all.
That is the strange power and strange wrinkle in the universe that fuels my work. I'm yet to fully understand the mechanisms behind why it works.
You've spent the last 10 years telling everyone else's story. What's the one thing about your story that you wish everyone knew?
No. I wish people knew none of it! I've always wanted Humans of New York to be bigger than I am.
Because it's better than me. It's more pure than me. It makes more of a difference in people's lives than I do as a concept. The more I can disappear with my own human weaknesses, inconsistencies, bad opinions and bad thinking, the stronger the work can become because it's not tethered to me.
So much of social media is personality-driven. All of it is! And Humans of New York is not at all. My personality is not in there at all. I think so much of its success is because of that.
I am the most comfortable — and I think the work is the best — the least visible I am. I always wonder what the right balance of it is because I think to myself, "Maybe I'd like to do something as Brandon Stanton one day, but I've been hiding Brandon Stanton as much as I possibly can." I question the wisdom of that sometime. But ultimately, in my quiet moments, I come back to: "The more you disappear, the better things are."
I'm most comfortable when I'm working with someone to be a channel and vessel for their story.
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