HCTCNJ had the exclusive opportunity to interview Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York, before his lecture in Kendall Hall. Despite being on the New York Times best-seller list and having a large social media following, Brandon was a down-to-earth guy and extremely humble. Brandon let us turn the camera on him and ask him a few questions about advice, his feelings on the success of HONY, and the happiest he’s ever been.
Caitlyn: You taught yourself photography and only started taking pictures very recently before starting HONY in 2010, but you have since become known world-wide for these incredible images and stories. That being said, what advice would you give to aspiring photographers?
Brandon: I think I’m an above average photographer who works extremely hard. If you’re an extremely hard working photographer you’re going to naturally come across things on the street and all you kind of have to do is get it into focus. So to me, the photography has always been subservient to the storytelling….I would rather it be very intimate and personal and conversational. So a lot of the time what I’m looking for is an expression to match the story. I would rather for it to be very personal and intimate. How I taught myself to photograph was by taking ten thousand photographs per day…well, not ten thousand but seriously like about 1,800. I would wipe out huge memory cards. I would go and I would take twenty pictures of everything…I would go home, I would look at those, and I would pick my favorite one. Go to the next set of twenty, pick my favorite one, go to the next set of twenty, pick my favorite one. Even when Humans of New York started I used to make people stand there and take 20 pictures of them because I had no idea what I was doing. But by doing that machine gun approach and picking my favorite one from each set over and over and over again I started to realize what I like and I kinda started to develop my own style through that aesthetic. It’s the same thing I’m doing with stories now. Interviewing these people over and over and over again. Thousands of people. And I’m learning to tell their stories and learning what I like and what I don’t like and I’m learning I like more detail and I’m learning that I’m liking to reveal it in different posts. And, ya know, it constantly evolves, but it’s all from innovation and improvisation. It’s never from some idea that I had or some book that I read that I apply.
Stephanie: How do you feel knowing that you’ve created such an impact across the world since people are using your model of photography everywhere?
Brandon: I try not to think about it, ya know. If you base your worth off of the reception and you start thinking about that so much you know, you completely make yourself a hostage to other people’s opinions of your work whether those be negative or positive. If what, don’t get me wrong, I’m human, it’s something I battle, but if you base your identity and your self worth on the applause, and the admiration that you get, your completely making your identity and worth susceptible if that was to go away. And so what I always try to do is not to focus on the impact of the work but to focus on the work itself. What is that I can control. Can I control that it’s a best-selling book, that people love it, that I have twenty-million fans? Can I control that? No. The one thing that I can control is that I go out and work every single day. And if I work every single day, if I approach 5 or 6 people every single day and continue to do this and keep my nose down instead of up, the work naturally gets better & it naturally sustains this huge unwieldy whatever it is out there, that if I was to think about I would go crazy. It’s almost like the bigger Humans of New York gets, the more I try to get back into the mindset, again it’s hard because there is so much going on now, trying to get back into the mindset of one of those first days when I first moved to New York, when all I had to do was wake up every morning, tie my tennis shoes and go out and approach people. Because I know that’s what got me here, that’s what it’s about, and if I continue to focus on that then hopefully it would continue to improve and survive.
Caitlyn: We’d like to turn it around on you and ask you something that you usually ask others when you interview them. What is the happiest you have ever been?
Brandon: It’s easy to kinda sound cliche but it’s totally honest. The moment that I found out that the first book was a number one best seller. Because I was putting myself in that position to fail. I moved to New York with no experience as a photographer. Everybody thought I was crazy, I didn’t have any money, I didn’t know anyone in New York. I moved to New York two weeks after visiting the city for the first time. At the age of 26 I didn’t know anyone and it was so hard for so long and nobody was paying attention for so long and I was out there doing it every single day and even when the facebook group started to grow you’ve got your friends and family back home who are like “Oh it’s just a facebook page. Get a job! Where’s the money?” So when that book became a number one best seller which is such an old world validation, you know it’s not just facebook fans. It suddenly validated all that risk and all that pain and all that loneliness and all that hard work. It was validated in one amazing instance because I wasn’t expecting it at all, I was completely blindsided. and it was just…I don’t think i’ll ever feel like that again.
Brandon Stanton is inspirational for so many reasons. He picked himself up when he was at such a low point in his life after losing his job. He made it his goal to just make enough money so that he would be able to do what he loved everyday: take pictures. While he did not have a background in photography, he took pictures in his free time to de-stress. He made a split decision to move to New York and risk everything to start taking pictures. Not only is he inspirational for risking everything to follow his passions, but he also gives voices to the voiceless. He believes that everyone has a story worth telling but that not everyone has someone to tell that story to. Brandon makes himself that person.