Published May 1, 2017
After losing his job as a bond trader in Chicago in 2010, Brandon Stanton moved to New York City with little money and possessions to pursue a new hobby: photography.
His initial goal was to photograph 10,000 people on the streets of New York and plot their pictures on a map. The first picture he posted to his Facebook page some six years ago still has just one like and one comment.
Today, however, his Humans of New York (HONY) blog is followed by more than 25 million people on social media and has taken him all over the world. It’s also helped raise millions of dollars for charitable organizations.
But the Humans of New York that became a social media phenomenon and two New York Times best-selling books wasn’t the product of a single stroke of genius. It took hard work, lots of it.
“You cannot wait for the perfect idea to pursue something,” Stanton told the crowd in Alumni Arena on Saturday as the final guest in the 2016-17 Distinguished Speakers Series. “If I had waited for the idea for Humans of New York, I would have never created Humans of New York,” he said.
The project took “hundreds of tiny evolutions that eventually led to the concept that would be successful,” Stanton said, adding that he took thousands of photographs before anybody noticed him.
The image that captured people’s attention was of a woman named “Sweetheart” who dressed head to toe in green. Intrigued, Stanton asked her why she wore all green. “She said ‘I used to be a different color every single day, but one day I was green and that was a great day, so I’ve been green for 15 years,’” he said.
Stanton’s encounter with Sweetheart inspired him to caption that image using her quote. Humans of New York had evolved, and it blew up. “From that moment on, Humans of New York became my effort to stop a random person on the street and in a very short amount of time make that person feel comfortable enough where they will share things with people they might not even share with the people who are closest to them.”
He has gotten people to open up about cancer, their guilt, fear, addiction and child abuse, among other emotional topics. That intimacy and rawness have become the hallmark of Humans of New York and why it has been so successful, Stanton said. “The magic was not in the photography. It was in that bubble of intimacy.”
He said people frequently ask him how he gets complete strangers to share such intimate details of their lives. “The short answer is, I just ask,” he said.
Over the years, he’s discovered that one question in particular, the one he often leads with, gets people to share their feelings: “What is your biggest challenge right now?”
“When a stranger comes up and asks you, even if it’s uncomfortable, there’s something very cathartic and validating about walking through that kind of stuff. There’s lots of people in New York whose lives are going so poorly and all they have is their story,” he said.
In closing, Stanton said success takes hard work, but “if you focus on the work and doing what you love every day, the idea will become what it needs to be and you will become what you need to be along the way.”
After his talk, Stanton held a question-and-answer session moderated by Andrew Stott, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. He also shared a series of video interviews that represent the next evolution of HONY.
Stanton was filling in as the Undergraduate Student Choice Speaker after actor James Franco canceled his appearance due to a professional conflict.