Humans of New York comes to St. John's University!

As many of my fellow Johnnies will know, this year’s Freshman Read was Humans of New York: Stories. And as some of you may not know, our fabulous SGI came up with the hashtag, #HumansofSJU on different social media platforms in order to broadcast this. And of course, just in case you missed it, on 5 November 2015, Humans of New York’s Brandon Stanton came to our campus, resulting in the “largest crowd ever for an academic lecture,” according to the opener. Last week, Humans of New York: Stories reached #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List. Big surprise there! The Facebook page, Humans of New York has nearly 16 million fans! After being introduced by SGI, Stanton went on to talk about how he started the page we know and love.

In 2010, Stanton was a bond trader in Chicago. He had been a history major in college, and though he felt like a creative person, he said that “bond trader” seemed more prestigious. He wanted to do something more artistic, but he felt like he had to take this job. After working there for two years, he lost his job. He had been putting his dream aside for two years, and now he would have the chance to put it into action.

At this point, he made the decision to make just enough money to do what he wanted to do. He’d spent the last two years thinking about nothing but money, but “what’s the money value of time?” he asked. Despite the common notion of “Bond traders are rich,” Stanton told us that he was flat broke when he lost his job. As a bond trader, he’d gotten himself a camera as a way to de-stress from his job. He would go around downtown Chicago and take random pictures. He fell in love with it, showing us some of his older pictures of Chicago. So, he picked up his life and moved to New York City with nothing: “This was my big risk. I was gonna move to New York City, I was gonna take pictures of 10,000 people, and I was gonna make a huge consensus of New York City. And that was the beginning of Humans of New York.”

At first, all he thought about was the number 10,000. And when he first took a picture of people, he was nervous. He asked himself, “is it okay to take a picture of a stranger?” and this was a pivotal moment for him. “If I can get over this fear and start photographing people, I can do something that not a lot of people can do,” he said. So he had to get over his fear of photographing people, and he did.

Stanton claims that HONY wasn’t “some grand idea… it started with the decision that I wanted to do something that I loved…and figure the rest out later.” All he knew was that he wanted to photograph people, and it became this huge campaign – all because he forced himself to be unafraid to fail: “You learned something and you had fun…what happens if you never learn to fail at the small things, you’ll never have the courage to try the big things. And there’s never been an easier time to fail than right now, in college. It would have probably been easier in high school, but it’s too late for that.” He said that he is so glad that he took that leap of faith and followed his dream.

He claims that in his first photos in New York, he was looking more for moments than for stories. If you flip through either of his books, or through his old pictures on Facebook, you can see the difference in the kind of pictures he was taking. Also, at first he didn’t have too many fans – it was only a few people that he’d roped into liking his page, to get a few people following him. He said that it was so long before he got his first fan whom he didn’t know. He was “working so hard…all day long, photographing people.” Slowly, he started gaining more fans. When he got up to ten new fans each day, “I was convinced I was gonna be famous.” All he was doing was what he loved every single day, and although it was exciting, he said it intimidated him a bit: “I’m one dude, and 1500 people were following me.”

Eventually, he came to the realization that what made him different wasn’t going to be his pictures, but rather his ability to approach people he didn’t know and talk to them. In the last few months, he has been able to raise over $5 million for causes just from people reading stories and donating. He said that he is just shocked at the progression of his pictures over the last five years: from two little boys on a train, to President Obama, just because he committed himself to doing what he loved every single day of his life, and trusted himself to make it happen. The plan wasn’t perfect, he said, but he didn’t wait for it to be perfect.

Stanton then talked to us about his interview process. He said that it’s slowly gone from a twenty minute conversation to a forty minute conversation, so he’s looking for people who look like they have the time to talk. Also, he will never interview someone in front of their friends: he said that when people are with their friends, they calm up and don’t open up as much to the personal questions. He also will never approach anyone from behind, and these are the only rules he ever follows.

“There’s nothing I appreciate more than honesty,” he said. He asks the questions he asks in order to get people to open up about their stories. “What I’m doing when I’m asking those questions is I’m trying to find a story.” He wants to be able to hear where they’re coming from, what has brought them to this point. He’s not trying to point out that all of humanity is the same, but rather the opposite: that we all have different experiences, and we’re all unique as a result of this. He’s often asked what he’s learned about humanity, and about people, and because of what he’s trying to do, he avoids these questions. He doesn’t want to group us all together, when we’re all our own individuals.

One of the things that Stanton really emphasized was that he only achieved this success by following his dreams. He tried to take the responsible job, and put his dreams aside, and that didn’t work. But once he did what he loved every single day, he was much happier, and now he has written two bestselling books! Thank you, Brandon Stanton, for taking the time to come and talk to us.

So now a word of my own advice: never give up on yourself, and don’t follow the money. If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. You can survive without money, but you can’t live without happiness.