Interviews

Interview with “Humans of New York” creator Brandon Stanton 11/17/15

Brandon Stanton: Hot seat, rapid fire!

Sydney Shaw: Hi, I’m Sydney, I’m from The Signal, it’s our newspaper here. Thank you so much for coming to campus. First of all, we really wanted to know what made you pick up a camera in the first place, because we looked into how you majored in history.

Brandon: Right.

Sydney: And went to work as a bond trader.

Brandon: Right.

Sydney: So those things don’t really lend themselves to the arts.

Brandon: Well, history does a little bit.

Sydney: Yeah?

Brandon: You know what really fascinated me — and I view bond trading as more something I fell into, whereas being a history major is something I chose. And that really kind of sprung out of a love of biographies. I started out reading biographies and if you think about what a biography is, all it is is a personal history. And so by falling in love with biographies, that’s kind of where i decided that I wanted to be a history major. So if you extrapolate to photography being kind of a stepping stone to telling people’s stories, and the paths there, because it goes from history to telling people’s histories. And, you know, the bond trading was just kind of a little detour in my life. It was not something I studied, it was something that my friend did and it was a very good job and he offered it to me and, at the time, it was something I didn’t really think I could say no to. And so I did that for two years, and the photography part came in while I was trading bonds. The job was going so bad that I needed something to take off stress, and so I bought a camera and I started photographing on the weekends. And so when I did lose my job a few months later, I had this little bit of runway where I’d been going downtown Chicago with a camera every weekend and I’d gotten to be somewhat decent at it, and more importantly, I loved it. And so I said “I’m just gonna take some time off and I’m just gonna do what I love, which is photography.” And just by doing that every single day, it kind of morphed into meeting people and telling their stories. It was very evolutionary, as opposed to kind of a flash of inspiration.

Sydney: Awesome. Yeah, and it looks like it’s evolved since then, so when did you…

Brandon: It’s evolved in the past two months.

Sydney: Yeah! It’s always evolving.

Brandon: Honestly, it changes so much. It was funny because I made that book because when the first book came out, it was mainly just photographs. And so in the six months it took that first book to be published, the blog had changed so much that when that first book came out, it didn’t even look like the blog anymore. And I’m like, “Ok, I need to make a new book that represents some of the longer stories.” And then so that comes out, and I was just checking the Amazon reviews the other day and someone’s already written, “It doesn’t have the longer stories like the blog has now,” since I started to do the multi-part stories on the blog, so it’s just always changing and it’s always evolving and it comes out of the work. It just comes out of me doing it every single day, and I constantly ask myself, “How can I make myself like this more?” And I thought to myself, just getting more and more detail and more and more depth to these peoples stories, and the stories get longer and longer and longer.

Sydney: When did you realize that Humans of New York could do more than just share snippets of people’s lives, and that you could use it to start, like, crowdfunding or rising awareness?

Brandon: Well those are, you know, I guess they’re kinda two sides of the same coin. I guess the first time I found out that Humans of New York could really raise money was the first time I tried to raise money. Um, what was that even? Um, Hurricane Sandy was the vey first fundraiser we did. We raised a quarter of a million dollars. Oh man, it was one of those Indiegogo campaigns, and I promised prints for everybody. Oh it was a lot of work. Now, the fundraisers I do are just kind of out of the goodness of your own heart. So that’s when I discovered that the blog could be used to fundraise. As far as like, using the blog, going to different countries and using the blog to kind of portray a country in the HONY style, I remember, people used to always come up to me on the streets and say… God, one of the things I often hear is, “My mom was so terrified of me moving to New York, but then I just showed her your blog and now she feels better.” And I realized that, you know, through stopping random people on the street and meeting these strangers, and kind of telling their stories and breaking down that wall just a little bit, it had a very kind of empathizing, ameliorating effect on the image of a person, a neighborhood, a city and a place. And so once I realized that power of Humans of New York, the more I started thinking “where could I apply that, where is somewhere that is feared that I can go and stop random people?” And the first place I traveled was Iran. And the reception of that was so amazing that I realized that was also __________.

Sydney: Well, thank you so much.

Brandon: You know what I love? I love that slogan. *points to sign on wall* I was sitting here and saw “Risk, Fail, Risk Again.” That’s my slogan, too. Just, you know, try it and… just try it. Keep trying it and be ok with failing. That’s one thing I’ll talk about tonight is the importance of failing and, you know, I would never have done Humans of New York if I hadn’t had put myself in the position to fall on my face in front of all my family and friends.

Sydney: Yeah.

Brandon: Nothing but a finance history. I moved to New York, two suitcases, told all my family and friends I was gonna be a photographer. And yeah, it’s just, I set myself up for failure. I had no experience. But I got down on the ground and I figured it out.

Sydney: Awesome. All right.

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