Humans of New York creator: Build a life around what brings you joy
When Brandon Stanton was fired from his well-paying finance job in 2008, he said he felt a sense of release. He took a walk and decided that whatever he would do next, he would make sure it was something he loved and enjoyed in the moment instead of just another job.
Thirteen years, a bestselling book and his famous photography blog Humans of New York later, Stanton spoke to the IU community for The Media School’s Speaker Series in a livestreamed event March 25, presented by the IU Auditorium and Union Board.
“My job involves collecting the stories of other people,” he said. “I’ve collected thousands of stories not only from the streets of New York but from people all around the world.”
Stanton, who started his blog in 2010, spoke about his journey and his approach to storytelling and photography, and conducted a live interview for those that tuned in.
The blog has become one of the most iconic internet-based photography projects in the years since its launch. The formula goes like this: Stanton walks down the streets of New York City, tries to stop someone who doesn’t look too busy, snaps a picture and sits down to talk about his subject’s life.
From pithy quotes to heart-wrenching tales in the caption, the array of stories and portraits Stanton decided to specialize in hit a vein, and he hasn’t looked back since.
It’s a long way away from his beginnings, dropping out of the University of Georgia to attend a local community college before getting a job as a bond trader in Chicago through a connection with a friend. He picked up photography there, a way to balance his busy work life with one thing he did just because he enjoyed it.
He started with scenes he found around him in the city that he found beautiful, then graduated to taking pictures of people out and about. After he lost his job, his mission was to make enough money to pay rent, eat and take pictures all day long.
He decided to move to New York City, where he’d never have a shortage of interesting content. It also helped that he didn’t have to have a car, and could feasibly walk around every day looking for people to photograph.
At one point he envisioned creating a map of 10,000 photos. But he abandoned that concept when one Facebook post received more attention than usual. The picture was of a woman dressed in all green including brightly dyed hair, and it was accompanied by a caption.
“I used to be a different color every single day,” she told him. “But then one day I wore green, and that was a great day. So I’ve been greening for 25 years.”
He decided to pivot to photos of people, eventually leading to Humans of New York. At the beginning, he would run up to somebody and write the first thing the person said. The blog started to catch on with these one-liners.
“I started photographing when I was 26, so there’s no way I can become one of the best photographers in the world,” Stanton said he remembers thinking. “But what I can do is become one of the best people in the world at stopping random people and asking for their photograph.”
Gradually, the conversations got longer and the stories got more involved. Stanton tried to be more thoughtful with his questions and ask follow-ups for a deeper, authentic response.
“It all goes back to making people feel comfortable,” he said. “It’s not really an interview. What it is is a very intense focus, listening to people very intently, then asking questions based on my own curiosity.”
Stanton conducted a live interview for the audience during the livestream, asking questions of a student volunteer while explaining his process: the pressure of an approach, prepping with having his blog up to show why exactly he wants to take a photo of a stranger. He likes to get multiple options, taking a wide shot at first and then taking photos during the interview.
To give people as much agency as possible, he tells them they don’t have to answer any question they don’t want to, he won’t share anything they don’t want him to share and they can change their mind on any answer at any time. He has a question he always opens with — for the live interview, it was “What is your greatest struggle in life right now?”
Stanton advised college students to ask themselves what brings them joy and then try to build a life around that as much as possible.
“I think you can do it,” he said. “Do I think you can be amazingly rich doing it? Do I think you can have the approval of everybody? That I don’t know or I can’t promise. But that’s not what I was looking for.”