Brandon Stanton: The 'human of the world'

  • Manjula Narayan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 14, 2014 10:11 IST

Brandon Stanton talks about what sets his photo blog apart and about travelling to 11 countries in 50 days - he's already been to Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Congo, Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan and Ukraine - as part of the promotional effort for the UN's Millennium Development Goals.

Let's start with yesterday's event in Delhi.
I've been to a lot of different countries. Every time I've gone to a country, people have been posting emails saying, 'Hey, I wanna meet you!' but the moment I posted my first India picture, I got 500 emails in a few hours from people in India. I've got so many fans here and I am very appreciative that they follow the blog. I had this idea an hour before I announced it and I said it would be cool if there were some place where I could meet everybody. I asked around and they showed me this Central Park area so I took a picture with my iPhone and said, 'OK, everybody, I'm going to be here in three hours if you want to come and say 'Hi'. I said I was going to be there at 6 pm and showed up at 5 and a ton of people were already there. So I started speaking at 5.10. Because the crowd was getting so big, I wanted to start talking just to keep everybody in control. So I asked everybody to sit down.

They sat down?

Yeah, it was pretty amazing. Hundreds of people and everybody sat down there quiet and I spoke for about an hour. Then it got to be about 6.10 and some police came over. I couldn't understand as they were speaking in Hindi. But they were very angrily speaking and everybody was shouting back. I was told later that they were like, "Who is he with?" and everybody shouted, "All of us". They were telling us we had to disperse so I took several steps back and took a photo of the crowd. Then the crowd, that up until then had been very calm, started running forward and I started running towards my car. My poor driver had no idea who I was. All he knew was I was going to the park and I come running back to the car with hundreds of people running behind me!

Petra, Jordan: "We were engaged for six months, but her parents made her marry a richer man." "What’s the last thing you said to her?" "I told her: ‘I’ve done all that I can do. I wish you happiness in your life.’" (Courtesy: Brandon Stanton)

Like a rock star!
Oh, it was very! But it was also scary because my girlfriend's claustrophobic. Everybody was swarming the car, pushing and rocking it and beating on windows. I think everybody who was at the event was relatively controlled and calm. I think the people who were being rowdy were those who weren't at the event; they just assumed I was somebody! Then the cops came and started pushing people. It was insane. I was laughing the entire time. My girlfriend got very nervous.

Where have you travelled in India?
I went to Jammu, Dharamsala and Amritsar and then came back to Delhi. I had about seven days in India. I looked at the big map of India and I thought I could spend 12 hours in several different places or I could just pick one region and do it well. I happened to be in New Delhi and I want to go up north and see the Himalayas and so I ended up doing the northern part of the country. Of all the places I've been, India is the one that's on the top of my list to return to.

Where are you going now?
Now, I'm going to Nepal and then Vietnam and then after that, it's still open. The whole trip has been very improvisational; we have a very loose itinerary. I never buy plane tickets out of a country until I'm in the country so I get on the ground, figure out what I need, where I'm going, how much time I need, and schedule as I go along. It's been very fluid the entire time.

And is there some back-end support?
The UN is helping in some countries more than others. The one thing that I really appreciate is that they are helping me when I need it but they are also giving me a lot of freedom, which I like because I try to show normalcy, just random people. I don't want to go to a country, for example, India, and just go to the slums and try to show poverty or the need for education. The UN is doing so much great work in all the countries of the world. They said, 'We just want you to go and do your normal thing.' The trip is sponsored by the Millennium Development goals and the purpose is to raise awareness for those. But our goal is not to go into any of these countries and show what they need or what's wrong with them but to just show as normal a representation of life as we can.

That's what makes it interesting; otherwise, it would have been preachy.
Exactly! And I've tried to avoid that from Day One. Everybody asks, 'What does Humans of New York mean?' and I always say that I try to avoid putting any kind of message in the work even if it is a positive or optimistic message. The moment you do that, you're looking for certain people and words that fit into the world view you are trying to show and it becomes preachy. My goal is not to try to say anything specific about this person or this country or the world in general or humanity in general, but rather to approach random people and listen to them and try to tell their story in as honest and genuine a way as I can.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Georgia which is a state in the south (of the US). Two interesting things about Humans of New York is that here I am, 30 years old and 10 million people are following the website; it's been on the bestseller list for 21 weeks… And I didn't start photographing until the age of 26 and I had never been to New York before the age of 26. I moved to New York and everything took off.

Jinja, Uganda: "I want to be a nurse." (Courtesy: Brandon Stanton)

You started Humans of New York casually.
Right. I'm very careful to emphasise that Humans of New York just came (about). It started with me going into the city every day for eight hours because I love taking photos. It wasn't like I had this plan to have this hugely popular photo blog. I love taking photos so I would go and photograph all day long, every day, thousands of pix a day even. Then I started noticing that I really like the pictures of people that I was taking and beyond that, I really liked where I'd stop somebody and I would take a portrait. Through this love of photography, I started gravitating towards the photography that I liked the most, which happened to be these very intimate portraits of strangers I was taking on the street and I thought that though I haven't been photographing very long, I've got something special here and I'm going to devote my life to it. So I moved to New York to stop strangers on the street and take portraits of them. I was doing that for several months without any success. Things took off when, one day, I included a little quote from the person, something they said to me, and the response was large. It resonated with people and I said there's really something to this. Since that day, the path and trajectory of Humans Of New York has been about telling deeper and deeper stories of strangers that I meet on the street. The two things that make HONY powerful is the intimacy of the stories combined with the anonymity of the stranger. Hardly ever are those two things brought together. HONY brings them together and I think that's one of the reasons it works.

You're a great conversationalist. I'm not sure I'd be able to go up to a stranger in the street and get him to tell me his dad and mum weren't married.
A college student followed me one day and afterwards he said, 'I used to think you were a photographer who interviewed people. Now I realise you're some body that goes around talking to people and then takes their photograph.' The entirety of the process revolves around making these conversations as genuinely conversational as possible. When I know I'm doing good work is when I forget that I'm interviewing somebody; I'm engrossed in what they are saying; I'm following my general curiosity and just talking to the person and that's a very certain energy. I've had reporters follow me and it's showed me the difference because I'll be talking to the person and be into the conversation and the reporter will come up behind me and say, 'Do you mind if I ask you a few questions? What is your name? What is your occupation?' The energy is so different. So that's the key: it's not about the words; it's not about the questions. It's about the energy at the exchange that you're having with somebody. The energy, as amorphous as it is, plays a huge role in the work.

People are at ease when they talk to you.
I try to get them at ease; I do everything that I can. That's the trick of HONY and the hard part and what has taken me so long to learn is it's not the photography that's hard; it's not the interviewing. What's hard is approaching a random stranger on the street and making them feel comfortable enough in a very short amount of time to reveal things to you that are really intimate and revealing of their lives.

How did you do at first?
I was horrible. The first 3,000 people I approached, I was awful. I was figuring it out. Because I've photographed 10,000 people, you've got to think I've approached 20,000. At first, I over explained: 'Oh, I'm doing this project; this is what I do…' Then I realised it's not about the explanation. If anything, explaining too much makes the person nervous. You really can't teach this because it's got to be earned; you've got to do it so many times that you are very comfortable with it. The worst thing you can do is be nervous because then you make the other person nervous. You have to be completely calm; you have to be very genuine; you have to put the other person at ease and that takes practice. You've got to do it so many times it doesn't scare you anymore; because that person is not going to be comfortable unless you are comfortable. It took a long time but now its second nature.

Has anybody ever told you something that has shocked you?
All the time. Think about the questions I'm asking: 'What's the most frightened you've ever been? What's the saddest moment of your life?' I mean I'm asking people to tell me the most shocking things that have ever happened to them. So by nature of the interview process the things that they tell me can be very shocking or tragic. Maybe tragic's a better word. A lot of tragedy in the world.

I liked the Sikh family that you did in Delhi. I'm wondering about the editing process. Did you have a long conversation with the gentleman and then come up with this gem?
Some conversations are very short; sometimes they are very long. Sometimes I use the first thing out of the person's mouth. Sometimes I'll be talking with them for 10 minutes... It all depends. The particular one that you're referencing, it was the answer to a simple question. He had a child with him so I just asked, 'What's your greatest dream for your child?' and he said, 'We'll let him dream for himself.' I thought that was poignant; I'd never heard that before. I know I have a caption that I'm going to use when somebody tells me something I've never heard before. It's very rarely a thought, a philosophy, when somebody says, 'Oh, I don't like cheese' or 'Oh, I think the government should be overthrown' because so many people share these thoughts. But what people don't share is stories. Everyone's got a unique story. Through my questioning I try to get down to the story. The way it works is I'll say, 'What's your greatest struggle right now?'

'Oh, I'm struggling to be more courageous.'

OK, that's a thought; that's something that a lot of people share. So what I'll do is I'll say, 'Well, tell me about a specific time you wished you'd been more courageous,'…then you're asking for a story! So it's always a process trying to get to a story.

(Left) Erbil, Iraq: "We just want to be together and not be afraid." (Courtesy: Brandon Stanton) | (Right) New Delhi, India: "What’s your biggest dream for your child?" "We’ll let him dream for himself." (Courtesy: Brandon Stanton)

But when people ask you personal questions are you open about it?
Oh, yeah. I've got to be, right? It's only fair.

So what do you think is the most important thing that's ever happened to you?
I tend to circle around the emotions because I feel so many of the stories in people's lives are coupled with a very strong emotion. The happiest moment in my life? That was easy: when I found out my book's the No 1 New York Times bestseller. Saddest moment of my life? When I was 19 and I flunked out of college and I was starting over, my grandparents let me live in their basement while I got a job and got back into college. I lived with my grandparents for two years so I got very close to them. My grandfather had really bad Alzheimer's and it was starting to progress very quickly and his personality was changing a lot but he was still kind of the same person. I was leaving for college for six months and I was pulling out of the driveway and waving bye to him knowing that when I saw him next he was going to be a completely different person. I'd say that was the saddest moment of my life.

What about your parents?
I'm sure it's all very exciting to them. When I first started they were, like, what are you doing?

All the reports say you were a bonds trader.
Right and so I think they were more worried about me than anything. They just thought I avoiding getting a job, being reckless. I was doing it for a year full time without anyone paying attention. Here I am, stopping people on the streets taking pictures of them and I don't have anything to show for it. So, yeah, I don't think they were too proud of it at the time. Obviously now I'm sure they are quite tickled by it.

How many countries have you travelled through so far?
I went to Jerusalem -- Israel and Palestine -- but I haven't posted the pictures yet because that was a side trip outside of the UN trip. I've been to Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Congo, Uganda, Kenya, the Sudan, Ukraine and now, I'm in India. One of the beautiful things about this trip is that it's improvisational. I decided that I was going to Nepal a few days ago.

What do you do when you're not working… because this is work for you
I just hang out with my girlfriend and my dog Suzie. I don't like to go to cocktail parties or industry things. I talk to people all day long and when I'm outside of that sphere, I'm pretty introverted. I like to hang out with the same two or three friends that I've known since high school and my girlfriend and my dog.

How many people do you talk to in a day if you're out on the street?
Probably about 10 and I normally post about five photos a day. They are pretty deep conversations. The key is doing it every single day. Any given day, I'll only be out for two or three hours but I never take days off.

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