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‘Humans Of New York’ Founder Brandon Stanton Talks Storytelling In SPA Lecture

Photographer Brandon Stanton spoke to a crowd of Penn State students Monday night as the first speaker of this fall’s Penn State’s Student Programming Association (SPA) guest lectures.

Stanton talked at length about his journey from college dropout to becoming the mastermind behind his blog, Humans of New York, a street portrait concept that features interviews with people on the streets of New York City.

After initially dropping out of the University of Georgia, he spent time living with his grandparents and working at Applebee’s where he learned the importance of having discipline in life.

“By not plugging in and participating in the structure of education, that’s what I was depriving myself of. I wasn’t a disciplined person,” Stanton said.

From there, he went to community college and eventually returned to the University of Georgia and improved not only his grades but himself overall.

Before Stanton began his journey with photography, he was working as a bonds trader in Chicago before getting fired. Following this, Stanton decided he wanted to do something more creative and fulfilling with his life and bought his first camera despite not having any prior experience with photography.

“It was the opposite of sitting in front of a computer trading bonds,” he said. “I was out interacting with the world, exchanging energy with people — just photographing things that I thought [were] beautiful.”

The more he photographed, the more Stanton dreamed of becoming a photographer, so he decided that he wanted to photograph real candids of people. He eventually moved to New York to start the beginnings of what would become Humans of New York. The first idea was to photograph 10,000 people and plot their individual photos on a map as a way to make himself stand out from other photographers.

He was able to gain a small following of a few hundred people after creating a Facebook page despite not having a plan of how to go about increasing his following since social media didn’t have the traction then as it does now. Stanton’s first photo that “took off” was a picture of an elderly woman who was dressed in all green.

“I remember she said to me ‘I used to be a different color every single day and one day, I was green and that was a good day. So, I’ve been green for 15 years…’ I wondered what would happen if I just typed that little quote above the photo — and I did it. It was the most popular photo I had ever posted. It had like 68 likes,” Stanton joked.

But, at the time, he realized that he was onto something after stopping thousands of New Yorkers on the street for a few months. Stanton learned that he developed a knack for talking to people on the street, even just for a little bit. Eleven years later, that was the spark that led to him writing three No. 1 New York Times Bestselling books and an Instagram following of over 11 million people.

“[This is] all based on this idea that people are curious about the people around them,” Stanton said. “But, there’s this resistance and this friction to stop people and ask them questions, and this feeling that you can’t invade people’s privacy. We very rarely get glimpses into the inner lives of just random people.”

Stanton noted that the success of Humans of New York comes from the desire to learn about and connect with other people who aren’t in the public eye. Because of his success in New York, he’s been able to travel all over the world and tell the stories of people from other countries. Additionally, he’s been able to raise money for people he interviews, raising $7 million this year.

“I’m looking for more opportunities to have an impact with the storytelling,” Stanton said.

The interview process initially involved Stanton approaching people on the street and asking them if they had time for an interview, which lasts anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. During this time, he asks personal, deep questions in an attempt to get the interviewees to share the story that they want to be told. However, with COVID-19, Stanton had people submit their stories through messages and email, where he received thousands of messages per day.

He also acknowledged that the best stories come from people who are willing to be vulnerable as opposed to those who give vague, closed-off answers.

“If you find somebody’s struggle or what they’re going through, not only can your story tell basically what happened to them, but you can also get to a place where they can reflect on what happened and provide the audience with some sort of elucidation or some sort of wisdom,” Stanton said.

In the last 20 minutes of the lecture, Stanton answered questions from the audience. He closed out the event by talking about the biggest struggle he’s currently facing as opposed to the struggles others are facing. His current challenge is feeling like he’s stretching himself thin to help other people.

“I could see very soon in the future where I’m not going to have the capacity to continue assisting everybody I feel the need to assist and that I owe,” Stanton said. “I go on journeys with these people…I feel an obligation to those people not to leave them.”

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About the Author

Mackenzie Cullen

Sadly, Mackenzie graduated from Penn State in 2022. She majored in English and served as one of Onward State's associate editors. You can keep up with her life and send compliments to @MackenzieC__ on Twitter.

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