BRANDON STANTON'S GOT AN ACCENT I can't place. Not quite like a southern drawl—maybe something Midwestern. He’s got rs that he chews on, and bites into his es, hard.
It’s comparatively rare for a microphone and camera to be focused on him. Brandon’s photography blog showcases the voices of thousands of people across the world. No audio (save for recently; he’s started a video series) and no Brandon. Just memories, visceral and honest. Ice cream; divorce; bodies; kissing; trauma. Today, he’s posted the most-shared Facebook photo of all time, and the number of likes on HONY outnumbers the actual population of New York. HONY’s audience has raised millions of dollars to help end bonded labor in Pakistan, fund pediatric cancer research, and send low-income schoolchildren on tours to Harvard.
It wasn’t always like this. Later on, as he paces the CEMEX stage, Brandon will explain how his viral photo project began. Matching the tone of HONY itself, his talk is characterized by intimacy and casualness. He has a salmon shirt and a gentle, flutey voice, and holds his body with the looseness of a teenager—6 ft 3 inches, but shorter when slung back on his heels. He will tell us about his days spent “hitting the bong in the dorm room”; about getting laid off from the first job that ever made him feel important; about what it’s like to feel like a total Grade-A failure. Brandon Stanton is not in the business of being heard, but he is a damned good storyteller.
But before the CEMEX talk, before the crowd, he’s backstage on a couch with PULSE, explaining what it’s like to wield an international spotlight.
PULSE: HOW DO YOU PICK THE CAUSES THAT YOU SUPPORT?
Brandon Stanton: Primarily, I want HONY to be storytelling content. If fundraising can come out of that, that’s great. But mainly I’m asking, where are powerful and important stories that I can tell? Once I’ve found that, then I can ask, is there a social good element that I can do on top of this?
P: How do you find those stories?
BS: It’s kind of a mix. But it all starts with, you know, what are important and powerful stories that I could be telling right now? What’s the best use of the space on my blog?
Fatima in Pakistan was pretty random. I just met Vidal in Brooklyn on a cold January day. The Memorial Sloane-Kettering project was a little bit more structured and planned. I met with them and asked if I could have access to their pediatric cancer ward.
Laid off as a bond trader in 2010, totally broke and spiraling into feelings of purposelessness, Brandon decided to commit to his longtime hobby of photography. He moved to a tiny apartment in New York shared with three other Craigslist roommates, slept on a floor mattress, and vowed to document one New Yorker a day. This project was titled Humans of New York, though eventually it would spread internationally. At first it was slow going, which he didn’t mind— it was mostly a project for himself.
One day, he added a quote to a now-iconic photo, fondly referred to as the “green lady.” The combination of photo and quote was unexpectedly contagious. The next day, his page views had exploded.
As HONY’s viewership grew, its scope expanded. Brandon has now photographed and interviewed Obama, covered the Met Gala, and met unique trailblazers from all over the world. He has embarked on multiple photojournalism series, documenting Iraqi war veterans, childhood cancer patients, and traveled to 20+ countries, including Iran, Iraq, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ukraine, Vietnam, and Mexico.
P: AS YOUR VIEWERSHIP HAS INCREASED, DO YOU THINK THAT'S CHANGED YOUR BEHAVIOR WHEN YOU'RE CHOOSING YOUR STORIES?
H: I used to like the very mysterious caption. Someone staring off into the distance. What happened was that the comments section started getting filled with speculations about the person’s life, and then arguments. Once it got big, it became such a stage, and the spotlight got so bright on the people there. One of the reasons I went to longer captions was out of that concern for the subject.
I insist on people taking anonymity a lot more. Very few times are you gonna have hundreds and thousands of people commenting on your life all at once. If somebody’s revealing something very vulnerable, you know, I’ll encourage them to be anonymous. If they’re talking about somebody else, and saying things about them that are private or accusatory, I will insist on them being anonymous. Those are the two big things.
It’s a single-source blog, so I do rely on people to tell the truth and I assume that they’re telling the truth. I’ve been duped a couple times, but it’s also very hard to lie on HONY, because everybody you know is gonna see it.
P: WHAT'S YOUR ADVICE FOR INDIVIDUALS WHO ARE INTERESTED IN USING STORYTELLING TO MAKE SOCIAL CHANGE, AS YOU HAVE?
BS: The power of HONY comes through getting out of the interview framework as much as possible. Real magic comes out of conversations as opposed to interviews. The power of a story comes from being very present in the conversation with somebody, and being very curious too. And following your extreme curiosity, listening very intently, and asking questions tailored to what the person is saying to you, as opposed to following some sort of framework.
I only have one or two or three lead-in questions. Everything after that is a hundred follow-up questions, tailored directly to what the person’s saying. It’s very intense listening.
Brandon’s chief concerns seem to be honesty and vulnerability, which he self-describes as being able to intuitively sense—the moment when a subject moves past defensive answers and eases into a quieter, more contemplative space. In his interviews, he chases it with a never-ending line of questions. This is why he “hates” photographing the MET Gala, despite his subjects’ beauty and fame: their gilded exterior personas are incredibly hard to break through, and honesty is hard to find.
P: HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH THE EMOTIONS THAT COME ALONG WITH PEOPLE OPENING UP TO YOU SO MUCH ABOUT THEIR PRIVATE LIVES?
BS: One of the reasons why HONY feels very authentic is that I sit there in the moment and I feel whatever that person is feeling. I don’t know if I’ve gotten very good at segmenting it, but once it’s over, it’s normally over for me.
Sometimes that is impossible. Normally during the series, where I am doing something like refugee series, or PTSD— especially the pediatric cancer series, where the stories are just so tragic, and so nonstop, those kind of stay with you.
P: COULD YOU GIVE US AN EXAMPLE OF STORIES THAT HAVE STUCK WITH YOU?
BS: Every single one’s the most important one to somebody. It all depends on how similar the person’s experience is to the one that you’re going through.
There’re some stories that meant a lot to me when I was 26. And now that I’m 34 and I’m having a child, I relate to other stories more. So it’s always rotating.
P: HOW HAS THE HABIT OF PARTICIPATING IN EMOTIONALLY CHARGED INTERACTIONS WITH PEOPLE CHANGED YOUR INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS?
BS: Probably not as much as you’d imagine. When your work is so seamless in your everyday existence, it’s hard to say what is just maturing and what is a direct result of the work.
One thing is, I’m never afraid of invading somebody’s privacy. I feel like a lot of times, people are going through, like, divorce or a drug addiction, and everyone’s respectful of their privacy and they don’t ask them about their problems. That’s one thing that Humans of New York has gotten me over. When somebody’s going through something, they want to be asked about it. So I’ll go right into it. I won’t make small talk and I won’t dance around it.
I think there’s something about the interaction between two strangers that creates this intimacy. So it doesn’t directly transfer into the relationships in my life. I don’t know if it’s sustainable to have deep, searching conversations [all the time.]
P: WHAT'S NEXT?
BS: I’m trying to do more long-form stuff. Just ‘cause it challenges me more as an artist. By far the way that I could grow my audience the most, and sell the most books—whatever—is getting to master the short form. That’s what everybody consumes. But I’ve done that.
As an artist, I want to try to do deeper examinations of people, even though it might take me away from the blog.
I’m going to the Philippines for 5 or 6 weeks. I’m working on a documentary on one person that I met that’s very interesting. That’s the thing that I’m thinking about the most right now.
PULSE thanks Brandon Stanton for the interview and Stanford Speakers Bureau!
By: Annie Zheng
Photography by: Ameeqa Ali