When Brandon Stanton moved to New York in 2010 he had no job, no money and little inspiration. But he did have a camera, so he decided he would take portraits of everyday New Yorkers and map them across the city on an online blog. Six years later, Humans of New York, an evolved version of Stanton’s original project, is celebrating more than 25 million social media followers worldwide.
Stanton spoke at the University of Utah on March 9th to describe the mission of the project: to get the perspectives of random, everyday people. The event was put on by the MUSE Project and was held at Kingsbury Hall.
“Nobody told me it was a good idea,” Stanton told an audience of a few hundred. “But here I am, six years later.”
Humans of New York, or HONY, started when Stanton, on a whim, captioned one of his photos with a quote from the person he photographed. Practically overnight, Stanton saw his pictures go from getting a few likes to a few hundred likes. It humanized the photos, Stanton said. It gave his photos narratives and turned HONY into a storytelling project.
The human behind the photograph
“So do you do a different color every day?”
“No, I used to go through different stages. But then I found that I was happiest when I was green, so I’ve been green for 15 years.”
Eventually, Stanton started interviewing everyone he photographed. How does he get people to open up? “The short answer is, I just ask,” he said.
Humans have a fear of being exposed, Stanton said, a fear of being found out. Alongside this fear, however, is “an appreciation for being heard, an appreciation that somebody, even if it’s random stranger, is taking that deep of an interest in your life.”
Over the years the project has expanded outside of New York and Stanton has interviewed hundreds of people throughout the world, including in Brazil, Chile, Pakistan and Iran. In 2015, Stanton was invited to the White House to interview President Barack Obama.
“I’m going to tell you a family secret. We hated each other in college. We were in the same history class. We argued over everything. I’d make a point in class, and she would argue the exact opposite. At the end of the year, our professor forced us to work together on our thesis project. Both of us asked him if we could choose different partners, but he refused. We made that professor the godfather of our children.”
How do you decide who to talk to?, asked Madeline Watterson, a sophomore in musical theater. Stanton said he tries to keep it random and avoid pushing an agenda, ideology or bias. “I never want the blog to be about me.”
Keaton Perkins, a junior, asked Stanton if he felt a calling before moving to New York. He didn’t, he told the social work student. Humans of New York wasn’t built on passion, Stanton said, “It was build on discipline.”
When he started taking photographs in Chicago and New York, he said he felt lost and directionless in life. “I was terrified,” Stanton said. “I felt so much pressure to discover this giant purpose, to do something important. It was paralyzing.”
This changed, he said, when he began focusing on what he was going to do with his day instead of what he was going to do with his life. Instead of thinking about the future, he began studying, reading, exercising and playing the piano. “It’s when I stopped focusing on the big picture and started doing small things that would move me forward every single day.” This, Stanton said, is when his life turned around.
Follow your dreams
“What’s your greatest struggle right now?”
“Not being white.”
Don’t wait around for the perfect idea, Stanton said. “If I had waited for that idea before I devoted my life to figuring out how to make a living doing what I love, I would’ve never started Humans of New York. You cannot wait for the perfect idea before you begin.”
Following your dreams does not mean neglecting responsibilities, Stanton emphasized. Too many people, he said, use their dreams as an excuse to not work hard. But actually pursuing your dreams is not easy, Stanton said. “Following your dreams correctly is nothing but hard work.”
“The dream is not to get to a place where you don’t have to work,” he said. “The dream is to get to a place where you can choose your work.”
But take his advice with a grain of salt, Stanton caveated. “I feel like it’s a temptation of people who have had success in life to look at their road map and say, ‘It worked for me, that’s the road map for success,’” he said. But to Stanton, this is to “discount the luck of being in the right place at the right time, the people who helped you, and the good fortune.”
“I feel like I hit the lottery in so many ways.”