Humans of New York founder tells his own story

After losing his job as a bond trader in Chicago and announcing to his family that he wanted to become a full-time photographer, Brandon Stanton left everything behind and moved to a place he had visited only once before — New York City.

His goal: to photograph 10,000 strangers on the streets for a photoblog that came to be called “Humans of New York” (HONY). Stanton posts photos of these strangers, accompanied with snippets of their stories. Today, the Humans of New York Facebook page boasts almost 16 million likes.

Stanton says his love for biographies sparked his love for telling other people’s stories. (Heiner Fallas)

Stanton spent the evening in Kendall Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 17, to share his own story with the College and to encourage students to get familiar with failure.

“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,” Stanton said in an interview with The Signal. “I moved to New York, with nothing but a history degree and two suitcases, and told all my family and friends I was gonna be a photographer… I set myself up for failure. I had no experience.”

While attending the University of Georgia, Stanton decided to major in history because of his love for biographies.

“If you think about what a biography is, it is a personal history,” he said. “So by falling in love with biographies, that’s 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… it goes from (studying) history to telling people’s histories.”

The photo captions on the Humans of New York page have not always included the subjects’ stories, though. The evolution of Stanton’s blog can be seen by comparing his two No. 1 New York Times bestselling books — “Humans of New York” and “Humans of New York: Stories,” released in 2013 and 2015, respectively. The books contain a compilation of Stanton’s photos from his photoblog.

“When the first book came out, it was mainly just photographs,” Stanton said. “So in the six months it took for 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.”

In the captions of his photos, Stanton has begun to include longer quotes from the people he photographed. Over time, he realized his knack for approaching strangers and quickly developing a rapport with them.

Over the years, the Humans of New York photoblog has evolved to include longer captions of Stanton’s subjects. (Heiner Fallas)

“It’s just always changing and it’s always evolving,” Stanton said. “It just comes out of me doing it every single day… I just keep getting more and more detail and more and more depth to these people’s stories, and the stories get longer and longer and longer.”

While the depths of the stories Stanton includes on the page have evolved, so has the impact of the page itself.

“The first time I found out that Humans of New York could really raise money was the first time I tried to raise money,” Stanton said. “Hurricane Sandy was the very first fundraiser we did. We raised a quarter of a million dollars.”

Since then, fans of Humans of New York have collaborated to raise money for those featured on the page, including a Pakistani man whose tractor was destroyed in an accident, to help end bonded labor in Pakistan and, most famously, for Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The page has also evolved into a tool to spread empathy across the world.

“I remember, people used to always come up to me on the streets and say, ‘My mom was so terrified of me moving to New York, but then I just showed her your blog and now she feels better,’” Stanton said. “I realized that through stopping random people on the street and meeting these strangers… it had a very empathizing, ameliorating effect on the image of a person, a neighborhood, a city and a place.

“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 photograph random people?’”

The first place Stanton traveled to was Iran in the summer of 2012. Since then, he has collected photographs in nearly 20 countries, including Iraq, Pakistan and Mexico.

“The reception of that was so amazing,” he said.

Stanton ended his lecture by sharing a secret with the 800 or so students in the audience.

“I’m working on a film,” he said. “I’ve done about 150 days of filming and nobody’s seen any of it. I’ve filmed over 600 HONY interviews.”

While he didn’t reveal a possible release date for the film, Stanton told audience members that it’s “awesome.”

“There’s a story in all of us that is filled with enough excitement, tragedy, love and heroism that it can captivate millions and millions of people,” he said.

This story originally appeared in The Signal.

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