Internationally renowned photographer Brandon Stanton spoke to a crowd of more than 1,000 in Battell Chapel Wednesday afternoon about his biographical photography career documenting the lives of New Yorkers — a project known as “Humans of New York” to his 16 million social media followers. Stanton’s passion for storytelling has led to international photography tours, major crowdfunding efforts and political activism.
Yet despite his massive popularity, Stanton described his “humble beginnings” and explained how working on the project has given him “a profound reorienting of perspective.”
Stanton started work on HONY when he moved to New York City after losing his job as a bond trader in Chicago in 2008. He endeavored to photograph 10,000 portraits and plot them on a map of his new home city, an idea that unexpectedly became Humans of New York. He described the evolution of HONY as entirely unplanned.
“The HONY I committed my life to looks nothing like the HONY that later became successful,” Stanton said, emphasizing that if he had waited for the idea of it to come or if he had been afraid of failure, HONY would have never come to be.
The trademark quotations that accompany each HONY portrait are the product of carefully constructed interviews Stanton holds with his subjects. These, too, were not part of Stanton’s original plan to photograph people.
Stanton also shared what he has learned about life in New York through his photography, describing it as a place with many lonely people who are “on guard” and have a “built-in defense mechanism.”
He said he thinks his subjects experience two simultaneous trains of thought while talking to him: one is of vulnerability from sharing personal information with a stranger, and the other is the sense of validation that comes from someone taking a sincere interest in them.
“[Validation] always outruns that thread of vulnerability because people appreciate so much to be listened to,” he said. “A lot of people really don’t have anything but their stories.”
A few of Stanton’s lucky photography subjects have had more than just their stories shared. Stanton attributed the $5 million crowdfunded by the HONY community in the past year — for everything from a new tractor for a jobless man in Pakistan to $1.4 million for Brooklyn schoolchildren to visit Harvard — to the fact that his followers are “a powerful group of people because they care.”
He emphasized his role as a mere vehicle for people’s stories to be heard, explaining that the positive feedback he receives is not a result of his personal work, but rather of the online HONY community that spans the globe.
“There is a culture where we don’t make fun of people and try not to judge people,” Stanton said. “If that culture did not exist, HONY would not exist. If people judged, mocked or criticized, no one would let me take their picture.”
Despite HONY’s influential reach, Stanton said he is careful not to express his own opinions or come across as an activist. He only raises money for causes that organically arise from his blog.
“[Stanton] tries to keep himself and his opinions out of his work as much as possible, so it was really interesting to finally get to hear his story after he has told so many others,” said Romy Vassilev ’19, who attended the talk.
Stanton said that, ultimately, HONY is not a photography blog, nor is it journalism or about New York. For example, he said, rather than maintaining journalistic objectivity, he is often more than willing to provide monetary support for those he interviews.
He said he is able to convince people to share personal stories with him through his genuine consideration for their wellbeing and his desire to get to know them.
“Through approaching thousands of people, I’ve learned to do it in a way where I can create a bubble of intimacy and compassion where a stranger feels comfortable sharing things about their lives,” he explained. “[HONY is] about that bubble.”
The “bubble” has also allowed Stanton to export his movement to an international stage. In collaboration with the United Nations, Stanton has made several trips to the Middle East to spread awareness of the individual stories behind the refugee crises.
Students who queued for up to an hour before the talk began welcomed Stanton with raucous applause, and dozens lined up to ask him questions after his talk.
“I think it’s great that Yale is a large enough artistic magnet for important people like Brandon Stanton [to come and speak here],” Joshua Tarplin ’19 said.
Neha Anand ’17, president of UNICEF at Yale, said Stanton’s blog brings students closer to harsh realities and raises awareness about important issues and cultural ideas.
“I think his own story shows that a simple idea can have a big impact,” she said. “This is what all Yalies are striving to achieve one way or another.”
Stanton has published three books, the first of which reached number one on The New York Times’ Non Fiction Best Sellers of 2013.