Humans of Penn State Welcome Brandon Stanton
Humans of New York author Brandon Stanton is always behind the camera. He has made a living off of taking pictures of strangers on the street and asking them questions. But for a man who makes a living in behind the camera, his own life is a story in its own right.
When SPA invited Stanton to give a speech as part of its Distinguished Speaker Series, the public was finally able to find out more about the man behind the globally recognized site. To start off his speech, Stanton joked about the fact that while he was used to talking to people, the several thousand people in front of him at the Eisenhower Auditorium still made him a little unnerved.
The show itself followed the life of both Stanton and Humans of New York. His story began in college, where he had no idea what he wanted to do in life. He explained that while his classmates were busy studying, he was in his dorm smoking or just lounging about. When he finally graduated, he got a job selling bonds in Chicago. He wasn’t overly happy at the position but kept at it until 2010, when he was fired.
This unfortunate event was the turning point in his life. With money he won from a Fantasy Football league, he was able to purchase his first camera, purely on the basis that he liked taking pictures. He had no formal training, it was just a hobby that turned full time after his firing. After taking pictures at several famous cities, he was able to make his way to New York. He admitted in a fit of laughter that the only reason this was possible was due to his friends pitying him and buying his “crappy” pictures of landscapes and random objects.
Stanton’s first picture of the HONY brand was of a man in an awkward position on a subway. The eye-opening experience for him was when he placed a picture he didn’t particularly like on the site and it gained more attention than any of his previous ones. The difference? This one had a caption.
For the picture of a woman dressed in solid green, she explained that she used to wear a different color every day, and on one particularly good day, she was wearing green. Since then, she had worn green for 15 years. Just like that, the HONY we all recognize now was born.
Stanton credits most of his success to finding something that was missing in the market of journalism: normalcy. He said reports and news stations always look at life’s extremes. When there is a protest they will talk to the ones screaming, and in a natural disaster they will focus on only the most destroyed areas. Instead, he focuses on the middle of the spectrum. He would rather focus on those who, to plainly put it, are the most human.
Other than his focus on normalcy, Stanton said his livelihood would have been impossible to maintain 10 years ago due to social media being a driving force behind his success. The stats on his pages tell that story (400,000 Tumblr followers, 10 million likes on Facebook and 162,000 Twitter followers). His photography book “Humans of New York” was a No. 1 best seller on the New York Times Non-Fiction Best Sellers of 2013 list, and his second book Little Humans is set to be released on October 7.
The most amazing part of the night was when Stanton took a member of the audience to perform a mock interview to demonstrate how he goes about getting his pictures and quotes. He asked a woman he selected from the audience to sit down on the edge of the stage while he sat next to her. From there, he started a stream of random questions. Some questions led to what he called “blocks,” which lead to even more questions. The audience could tell when he got an answer he liked because he then kept going deeper. She told Stanton her grandmother inspired her because of her tell-it-like-it-is attitude. The woman became sad after Stanton started asking for examples, and it was powerful for the audience to witness such a personal interview that showed how Stanton was able to get to such a personal level with someone in just a few questions.
At the end of the day, Brandon Stanton is just a guy with a camera taking pictures and having talks with strangers, but the brand he has been able to create has inspired the world. We’re all human, sometimes it’s just hard to see it.