Brandon Stanton, founder of “Humans of New York,” comes to Yale
By Leila Murphy
Anyone who follows “Humans of New York” knows that Brandon Stanton has an eye for stories ― so, it should not come as a surprise that Stanton is particularly gifted at telling his own.
On Tuesday afternoon, Stanton narrated his own story with nuance, humility, and wit, tracing back the unplanned and bumpy path that got him to where he is today. He spoke in Battell Chapel, addressing a diverse audience ― the talk, which was hosted by Yale’s Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, was free and open to the public.
For those unfamiliar with his work, Stanton founded and runs a Facebook page (or as some would say, a movement) called “Humans of New York.” Stanton photographs and interviews ordinary people on the streets of New York City, and features his subjects on the page (which, to date, has 16,883,908 likes). Yet his work extends beyond New York ― he’s recently gone abroad to tell stories from Iran, Syria, and Pakistan, among other countries. He is also experimenting with different platforms: after having recently released a book, he’s now accumulating oral histories that will eventually turn into a film.
But just six years ago, when he was fired from his job as a bond trader in Chicago, Stanton would never have thought any of this was possible. He had just lost a job that he’d poured the last two years of his life into ― which caused for a serious identity crisis. He began to reorient his perspective: as he puts it, “Not looking at time as a way to accumulate resources, but as a resource itself.” At this point, Stanton had barely any photography experience ― he’d only been photographing Chicago’s scenery for a couple of months (and he flashes some of these images on a screen above the podium), but he knew that he really enjoyed taking pictures.
Completely broke, he decided to move to New York City and start taking pictures there. His first turning point on the path towards “Humans of New York” came in the form of a photo: a simple image of two young boys and their mothers on the subway. “This was the first photo that I’d ever taken of a person,” he says. He then explained how he had to overcome fear to take that photo. But by overcoming his fear, and taking the picture anyways, he realized that he had done something valuable. “I had just taken a photo that possibly someone who had been photographing for years could not take,” he said.
Stanton then breezed through the next few years, in which his simple pictures turned into a movement with millions of followers. He flashed some of his pictures from the Facebook page on the screen, but continued to insist, “It’s not a photography blog.” He argued that the appeal of his work is not in the photos themselves but in the stories that accompany them ― and in his own role, as someone who can empower strangers to share personal truths while avoiding initial discomfort, fear, or vulnerability. “I learned to create this environment for people to feel comfortable sharing,” he said. “People appreciate so much being able to share their stories.”
“Once I did that on the streets of New York City,” he continued, “I realized, once again, that Humans of New York wasn’t photography, it wasn’t journalism really, and you know what, it really wasn’t New York either.” Stanton went on to recount experiences taking photos and interviewing people abroad, showing images and sharing stories from rural Pakistan and Iraq.
Stanton then opened the floor to and responded questions from Yalies and non-Yalies alike, many focusing on the challenges Stanton faces in approaching subjects and in unearthing their individuality. Throughout his answers, Stanton used his own experience to directly address the concerns of Yale students. At one point, he stated, speaking of Yale students, “I think that you’re probably very used to success, possibly so used to success that the possibility of failure can seem very daunting to you.” He again cited his own experience, explaining, “If I waited till I had the idea for Humans of New York, it would have never happened.”
Through telling his own story, Stanton led his audience to reflect upon the threads that make up our own. He reminded us that life is short, meaningful, and unexpected ― and that sometimes, being present for other people’s stories can help clarify and give meaning to our own.
Leila is a freshman at Morse College. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.