Brandon Stanton, The Man Behind "Humans Of New York" Told Manila His Story—And It's Very Inspiring
For a blog that started out focused only on the lives of people living in one city—albeit the greatest city in the world—Humans Of New York (HONY) has undeniably created a mark in many different cities in different parts of the globe. What started out as a photo blog in 2010 has inspired many other Humans Of- iterations in various countries, spawned a successful book (31 weeks in the New York Times bestseller list), and has a Facebook following of close to 18 million and an Instagram following of 7.7 million.
But that is really what is at the heart of the growth of HONY: start small, and let the universe work its wonders. “All I knew is I wanted to photograph all day long,” founder Brandon Stanton said in a speaking engagement at the packed UP Cine Adarna last weekend. “At that time, this was my best idea of a way where I can possibly draw interest in my photography, sell a few photographs.”
The history major and bond trader moved from Chicago to New York after losing his job. With his Canon 7D, he set out to create a map of his new city through the portraits of the people he came across. Stanton was barely making ends meet in the beginning, depending mostly on unemployment checks and the kindness of friends and family. Until he decided to expand his audience by adding Facebook as a platform, and began putting captions to the portraits, telling the unique and inspiring stories of his sitters, their struggles and joys, and how they were able to pull through despite the cards they were dealt.
And Humans of New York just took on a life of its own.
“You cannot wait for the perfect idea before you begin trying to do something that you love,” he told the audience at UP. “If I waited for the idea of HONY I would have never started HONY.
[Some people] want to find the idea and then start working. The problem with that is that moment never comes.”
Stanton’s initial goal was just to get enough audience on social media and make a few hundred dollars from selling his prints. The audience he built eventually allowed him to make and sell a book, Humans of New York Stories. The tome’s success enabled him to bring his camera outside of his city, travel to different countries and take portraits of people from different cultures for HONY. He was in the Philippines precisely for this purpose, as his Filipino fans learned in January when he posted a shoutout on Facebook looking for a possible interpreter that could assist him. He did the speaking engagement at UP gratis, but it is usually through giving talks that he gets to earn his keep—and how he keeps HONY pure and ad-free.
Last Saturday, he offered nuggets of wisdom and advice to his Manila followers. Spend time with the people you love. Spend time by doing something meaningful. “Spend time in ways that make us happy because we only have one life,” he said. “Instead of spending my time trying to make money, I was going to try to make just enough money to where I owned my time. That was my goal. I just want to make enough money to eat, have a roof over my head and to be able to do what I love all day long: take pictures.”
He didn’t think he was that good in photography. But Stanton loved doing it and the pursuit allowed him a space in his head not related to work. Photographing people changed his life. “I was out in the world. I was exploring. I was meeting people. Having these random interactions. Letting life spill into my experience. Photography is so joyful for me. I would just go and photograph everything that I saw,” he said.
“[My] realization with photography is so much of it is about the story that the photo tells. So many people are worried about it being perfect, the frame being perfect. A lot of photographers are better but why do I have more followers? It's the story that the photo tells that reaches out and kind of grabs. The story is so much more important than the quality of the photo.”
These days, the photographs at HONY is almost secondary to the stories that accompany them.
“HONY is about stopping a random person in a short amount of time, making that person feel comfortable enough to share a story about their life,” said Stanton.
When he’s talking to a person, he is already looking for that person’s narrative. Just like any good writer worth his salt, he looks for conflict. “I want to find out what these people have overcome. Normally my first question is, What is your greatest challenge or struggle right now? Or, What do you want to accomplish? The questions are really just entry points into the conversation. Then I start listening very intently and it's all about the good kind of follow up questions.”
He spends a longer time with people whose stories he knows will end up in a post. How is he able to tell if what he’s getting from his subjects are their real stories and not fabrications?
“I'm taking a story from a single person. There is always that chance that that person is lying to me. The amazing thing is that its very difficult to lie to me because 25 million people follow my page. So if you tell me a lie, your family is going to see it, your friends will see it. Everyone who knows you is going to see it and I'm going to hear about it. If you lie on HONY someone that you know will write me an email and tell me that you're lying.”