Humans of New York's Brandon Stanton Comes to Gainesville

Hundreds of students were disappointed when Brandon Stanton, the creator of the world-renowned blog Humans of New York, came to speak on campus on Dec. 9. But it wasn’t his visit that caused the disenchantment; it was the failure to obtain tickets. Tickets were sold out in less than four hours after the ACCENT Speakers Bureau announced their availability. It was clear that the UF community was excited about the visit, but many wondered if the event would fall short.

Well, it didn’t. Nearly 1,300 students crowded the Phillips Center and burst into applause when Stanton promptly took the stage at 8 p.m. We quickly got to know Stanton, the man who attended the University of Georgia and later moved to Chicago to become a bonds trader. So how did he end up with 16 million followers and one of the most popular and influential Facebook pages?

It wasn’t easy. Stanton attended the University of Georgia, but never graduated — he flunked out, and after dedicating three years of his life to bonds trading, he found himself jobless... and he was okay with that.

“That day was a good day,” Stanton said.

After realizing he had nothing else to lose, he packed up his camera along with a couple of belongings and made his way to New York City with the aspiration of becoming a photographer. Despite taking over a thousand pictures a day and sleeping on only a mattress for several months, Stanton began to find his niche. He realized that his blog served as a platform to share the story of the ordinary people in New York. He switched focus. Although he loved photography, he realized that there was a more important dynamic, which made photography secondary in nature.

“It’s about the storytelling. It’s about the interview,” Stanton said.

From there on, Humans of New York developed into the blog that we now know, although its focus has changed – the pictures have drifted from color focused, to photos of people, to portraits and eventually became slightly more intimate.

He discussed the places he’s visited, his techniques and even admitted to not knowing much about cameras, using the automatic feature in 98 percent of his pictures. Yet none of this impacted the audience.

Instead, what resonated with students was his fear of the unknown, fear of the future and fear of failure. Unlike previous speakers that ACCENT has brought on campus, Stanton was one of the few who was truly relatable, admitting, “I wasn’t exactly sure about what I wanted to do, but I always wanted to be a creative person.” He urged students to rethink taking the straight road and to take risks, adding, “Now is the time to take risks with minimal consequences.”

As Stanton spoke his words of wisdom, I looked around the room and saw many students nodding their heads in agreement.

I’m not sure if it was his casual tone, but it truly felt like he was a friend, just giving more than a thousand students a pep talk.

After the presentation, I chatted with Maria Jose Toro, a recent UF interior design graduate who is currently managing a local cleaning company. “I’m a creative just like he is, and I’m struggling with ‘Am liking what I’m doing? Am I being creative enough? Am I enjoying my time?’ And right now I’m not,” she said.

“To hear his story was really inspirational,” said sophomore journalism student Shakayla Lee.

Considering the stress that comes with finals, Stanton was a breath of fresh air that reminded us that success comes in many forms — not just the straight and narrow path that we are often taught. Currently on the blog, Stanton is sharing the stories of displaced families who have been affected by the war in Syria and are getting ready to relocate to the United States. He aims to continue opening the minds of his 16 million followers, one post at a time.