Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind photoblog Humans of New York, spoke about his path to success and the stories behind the pictures he takes in a Wednesday talk to a full house at CEMEX Auditorium.
Stanton started Humans of New York in 2010 after getting fired from his job as a bond trader in Chicago. The blog publishes photos of people, both from New York and around the world, along with portions of the conversation Stanton had with them while taking their photo. Humans of New York now has nearly 18 million likes on Facebook and nearly 8 million followers on Instagram. Stanton was listed in Time’s “30 Under 30 People Changing the World” in late 2013 and interviewed Barack Obama in the Oval Office in 2015.
Stanton’s talk at CEMEX, free to those with a SUID, though open to the general public, was sponsored by the Stanford University Speakers Bureau.
In the talk, Stanton stressed the importance of conveying minute, and often intimate, details of strangers’ lives and using those details to foster connection among others online.
“These stories themselves are extremely powerful,” he said. “You can take something that happened in someone’s life that seems very meaningless, and by crafting it into a story, you’ve taken something that is something that can be unexplainably tragic — like the brain cancer in your nine-year-old child — and turned it into something that speaks to people and gives them meaning.”
Stanton also emphasized his intention to offer his subjects agency as he crafts their photographs and hears their stories. He said that his photos do not aim to commodify other people’s lives.
“I never want Humans of New York to be something that’s done to somebody,” he said. “I always want it to be something done with somebody.”
Stanton said he started taking photos as a hobby — first taking pictures of nature and landscapes. But one day, Stanton said, while on the subway, he photographed two boys who unintentionally had the exact same expression on their faces.
“I remember looking at my viewfinder and feeling such a sense of pride,” he said. “I knew that I had just taken a photo that somebody who had been photographing for twenty years might not have been able to take.”
His pride wasn’t pervasive because of photographic perfection, Stanton explained. But he reveled in his newfound ability to overcome the fear of interacting with strangers in an intimate way.
“I realized that I’d probably started too late to become the best photographer in the world,” he said. “But maybe I can become the best in the world at stopping random people and convincing them to take their photographs.”
Stanton posted the subway photo on Facebook. It didn’t get a single like. But that didn’t stop him from moving to New York to pursue Humans of New York. Initially, he planned to take 10,000 pictures of New Yorkers and then plot the pictures on a map.
His plans changed after he photographed a woman dressed head to toe in green and included the caption: “I used to go through different stages. But I found that I was happiest when I was green, so I’ve been green for 15 years.”
The photo got over one hundred likes — significant traction for Stanton at the time. Following the woman dressed in green — the photo he referred to as his “tipping point” — Stanton started including captions with all of his pictures, slowly honing his format toward his page’s current recognizable style.
“Humans of New York came out of hundreds of small evolutions. I think so many of us are trying to form the perfect idea, and that never happens,” he said.
Through his photoblog, Stanton said, he has traveled to 30 countries and spoken with diverse groups of people, ranging from pediatric cancer patients to prison inmates to Syrian refugees.
He has also filmed “Humans of New York: The Series,” a videographic representation of people’s lives.
Stanton has published three books based on the blog. The first book, “Humans of New York,” was published in 2013 and became a top New York Times nonfiction bestseller.
“I would see a post, and they would just brighten my day,” said Alex McKeehan, ’18, who attended the event. “Humans of New York takes the essence of someone’s experience and captures that in a single moment, a single photo. I found that really powerful.”
Nearly a decade ago, Stanton aspired to climb the corporate ladder through bond trading. Now, he says, he finds more meaning in offering others a platform.
“The best feeling in the world is taking somebody who kind of feels discarded by society and making them feel important.”