WORDS BY ALYSSA STEVENSON, IMAGES BY WESLEY KIRK
Last night we had the privilege of attending the first event of this year’s UNT Fine Arts Series, an evening with Brandon Stanton, the creator of Humans Of New York. Stanton’s work on the blog turned book was insightful, uplifting, and relevant to anyone who not only works in a creative field, but anyone who feels like they have some major #lifegoals to achieve. He has photographed and interviewed thousands of people, and after his talk we had a chance to sit down and talk about a few things in a little more depth. Read on to find out how his incredible work ethic has driven him to tell the stories of thousands of strangers.
Stanton started the night by telling his personal story - the story of how he even picked up a camera in the first place. Well before there was Humans of New York, he was in the financial field full time, and he realized at some point that it completely controlled his life. Like many of us he started out thinking, I need to make the bulk of my income now, in order to achieve a certain lifestyle, or to pay off loans, or get started in life. But after awhile he realized that his occupation was the driving force of his life, and he needed something else to focus on to actually take a break occasionally. Brandon stated, “I had to force myself to create a space in my head that was completely separate from work.”
He started asking the difficult life question of, “If I could do anything with my time, what would I do.” Which led him to, “For the next foreseeable period of my life, instead of spending my time making money, I’m going to try to make just enough money so that I can control my time.”
So he left his job, and worked to figure out how he was going to pay rent, live in New York city, try to live as a photographer. And then something happened. One afternoon on the subway, with camera in hand, he looked up and saw two young boys held by their mothers, standing on the subway, and staring up at something with the exact same expression on their faces. What he saw he immediately knew he needed to capture. So he did - he took the picture. And in doing so he felt a sense of pride wash over him, not because he had mastered the technical skills of photography, but because he had taken the first step in removing the fear of others and engaged with strangers in a new and exciting way.
“I started way too late to become the best photographer in the world. I thought I could maybe become the guy that stops random people - because that involves engaging people.” And so he did just that. He risked everything, and sacrificed everything so that he could do what he wanted to do all day long; take pictures of people.
And so the evolution of HONY began. Over time HONY changed directions and slowly, little by little, evolved into the storytelling force that we know it as today. Brandon honed in on why it evolved this way - not because he had a brilliant idea in the beginning, not because he is the best photographer in the world, not because he had great financial backing or a brilliant business plan, but because he was willing to put in the hours of work to allow it to change him and become what it needed to be. According to Brandon, “the lion’s share of the word comes before anyone is paying attention.”
“If I had waited for the ‘idea’ of HONY, I never would have started. You cannot wait for the perfect idea. HONY was not a flash of brilliance, it was a commitment to the world that I was going to do what I wanted to do all day long, and evolving one little piece at a time. Not only did it become what it needed to be, I became what I needed to be.”
Brandon’s commitment to the stories of the people he meets is incredible. At this point he’s pointed out that the photography is secondary to the story of the people he meets. He realizes that what makes his work stand out is the willingness to reach out to strangers, to listen to them carefully and thoughtfully, and create an atmosphere where they will tell sincere, vulnerable and authentic stories.
WDDI: You’ve described your ability to approach others as a ‘learned skill’ - and we just heard you talk about it as a fear that you have to overcome. Beyond approaching hundred of people, how could someone else learn such a skill?
HONY: “That is a trick question, because it is not possible. When I was first approaching people, and I think this is the most important thing that I have to remind myself of, is how scared I was in the beginning. It’s so natural now. When I first started I would go out, and if three people in a row were rude to me, I would get demoralized and just go home - like I can’t do this today, nobody’s going to say yes. It’s not going to happen. And there are still days like that. I realized it was less about the words I would say, and it was more about my energy. Doing it so many times made me calmer, which made the other person more calm, and they would allow me to take their photograph. The only way to get calm when you’re doing that is by doing it so much that you’re not scared anymore. So it’s not something can be short circuited. I have just one question that I ask, so it’s a conversation, it’s just listening. If I go in with a list of questions, then it never gets out of that interview feeling. Now I almost walk up to someone with the expectation that in five minutes we’ll be talking about something deeply personal.”
WDDI: You’ve covered topics such as the refugee crisis, pediatric cancer, and other issues facing the world. What else do you want to cover that you haven’t been able to yet?
HONY: “One thing I have right now, especially on film, are interviews of people in low income neighborhoods, especially african americans about the police. I would love to match that with interviews of police officers. I want to get permission from the chief of the NYPD to do interviews with a hundred police officers to match those stories up. There is so much distrust between them. Things are so polarized between law enforcement officers and people who have interaction with law enforcement that I would love to present both sides of the story. There is so much more middle ground than people realize.”
WDDI: Is there anything more that you’re wanting out of your personal photography?
HONY: “The photography, I almost take this kind of like weird pride when people criticize my photography. I’ve so removed my photography skills from my identity as an artist because the photography is secondary to the storytelling - it sort of serves the story. I almost take pride in being able to tell a powerful story with rudimentary photography skills. With photography is it is more catching a genuine moment, catching an expression. That is mainly what I’m looking for - is an expression that will tell the story.”
WDDI: Has there ever been a particular picture or story that you posted that you thought would do very well, or vice versa? One that you didn’t think would get thousands of shares, but it did?
HONY: “There was a learning curve in the beginning of what I could and could and could not post. Very early, one of the things that still makes me cringe when I think about it, I walked up on a man in the Hasidic Jewish community talking to this woman from Sudan. And I photographed them together, he whispered something in her ear, she started crying, he ran off. I said, what just happened? She said, “He propositioned me, he tried to pay me for sex.” This was pretty early on in HONY and I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh, I’m going to stand up for women and stand up for justice, and I’m going to share this story.’ And I did, and it turned into a lynch mob. Then I got an email saying that the man’s son had tried to commit suicide. I took it down, and I got even more hate mail for protecting a man over a women and for silencing a woman. That was such a grenade. And that was me kind of figuring out the power of social media and the power of my audience. I cannot publicly accuse someone of wrongdoing, or tell a story and turn that judgement over to the lynch mob because the pitchforks come out. So that was a hard lesson to learn very early on about the power of social media. I can never direct my audience in condemnation of a single person, or it would ruin that person’s life without them having the benefit of the court system.”