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Meet Brandon Stanton, creator of Humans of New York

It’s not often a small business school newspaper gets to interview a key New York figure like Brandon Stanton. Brandon created Humans of New York in 2010, when he moved to New York City with not much more than a camera and an innovative mind. I’ll let him tell you his story.

DK: Hi Brandon! Thank you so much for talking to me today. This is a massive honor for The Stern Opportunity because, whether you like it or not, you are a New York legend, and NYU prides itself on being New York, through and through. We all know you as the creator and nurturer of Humans of New York (HONY), but of course you’re so much more than that. You have your own fascinating story and many incredible talents. I wanted to share your story for a change today. Business school students love a good elevator pitch, so let’s start with the basics. Where are you from and how did you end up in New York?

BS: Elevator pitch! Am I trying to raise money here?

DK: No, but you can still sell yourself!

BS: Okay, so my elevator pitch: I grew up in Georgia. I flunked out of school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I went back to college and became a history major. By that time, I was much more focused on making straight A’s. After college, I was offered a job trading bonds in Chicago. I did that for two years. This was in 2008. I washed out of that. I don’t know whether it was the circumstances of the recession, or if I just wasn’t a good enough trader. It was probably a mix of both. I lost my job and decided to do something artistic. I moved to New York with a camera and very little photography experience, with the goal of making it as a photographer. It wasn’t really about anything else but the activity. I’d been trading bonds, trying to make money for two years. I wanted to do something experientially opposite from that and do something I enjoyed while doing it. I had no other goal but to find a way to support myself and take photographs all day long. 

Humans of New York initially started with the goal to photograph 10,000 people on the streets of New York City. Over the next 10 years, through hundreds of evolutions, it evolved into something which involves stopping a random person on the street and, within a 45 minute interview, learning enough about their inner lives to write their story into a caption that will captivate the attention of millions of people.

DK: Would you say that you crafted HONY into what it is today, or is it something that sculpted itself?

BS: That’s an interestingly phrased question. I think it was actually… this is for a business school newspaper, you said?

DK: Yes, but we are a diverse group with different backgrounds.

BS: Interestingly, one thing you should know is I read textbooks when I flunked out of school. I took responsibility for my own education and I decided to read 100 books, 100 pages a day, every single day. I picked up a business textbook and thought, “Okay, I’m going to teach myself some business concepts.” I remember, in the first chapter, there was a boldface word that may have changed everything. It was “competitive advantage.” If you want to make it, you have to find what it is that you’re able to do that you could potentially be the best at it. That always stuck in my mind, even when I decided to be an artist and started taking photographs at 27. I was stopping random people on the streets and I’ve been doing this for months and months and months and months. I realized that I had started so late and I was never going to be the best photographer in the world. But after a period, I had stopped thousands of people on the streets. I’d gotten very good at stopping random people and making them feel comfortable enough to allow me to take their photograph. 

When you ask if HONY shaped itself, there was a component of that. I had this realization that I was becoming one of the best in the world at making strangers feel comfortable in my presence – not an easy thing to do, especially on the streets of New York City. And that is what my skill was, as opposed to photography. The art came out of that skill. I realized, “Okay, so I’ve already stopped these people in the street. I’ve already had an interaction with them. They’ve allowed me to take their photo. That’s the difficult part.” I thought, “Why not learn a little bit about these people?” It started with little captions. I would ask one or two questions and then it evolved into what it is today, which is this very long, very intense half therapy session/half interview that turns into a HONY story.

DK: Were there any pivotal moments that led to these big changes or did it gradually evolve over time?

BS: Whenever you’re telling a story, everything’s gradual, but for narrative purposes you have to have pivot points. A huge one for Humans of New York was when I first included a caption on a story. That was huge because I’d been doing this for months, and my goal was to take 10,000 photos of people. There wasn’t social media back then. I was just a guy with no photography experience and no money, stopping random people. I wasn’t even that good. I mean, I took some good photos in the early days, even some great ones, but that was because I took so many photos. If you took as many photos as I did, you’re going to take some great photos too. I was out there all day long. Every single day, I was on the streets of New York City and I ran into a ton of stuff. All I had to do was get it in the frame. 

I’d been doing this for months when I ran into this woman, and she was dressed all in green. I took her photo and I remember it wasn’t a very good photo. I was disappointed with it. I went home and I had created a Facebook page at the time – that was the very first thing that I did right. There weren’t many Facebook pages back then and my one big stroke of luck was that I was one of the very first Facebook pages – pre-Instagram, pre-Twitter. It was the first platform that gave you the functionality to reach a bunch of people with content beyond your friends. At the time, I had about 1,000 followers, which were all the people in the world to me back then. 

So, back to the woman in green. She said to me, “I used to be a different color every single day, but one day I was green and that was a great day. So, I’ve been green for 15 years.” I thought to myself, “What would happen if I put that quote in the caption of the photo.” It got about 69 likes, which was like the most likes I’d ever gotten on anything, and that was the…should we use business terminology for Stern students? That was my feedback from the market, that was what people were telling me what they were interested in. What’s a lot more interesting than looking at a picture of a person is learning a little bit about this person’s inner-life. That’s all I needed to see. 

The trajectory of Humans of New York ever since that moment was learning more and more about people and getting as good as I could at crafting these monologues – by learning how to write and edit in a way that would allow these people to convey their story in the most compelling way possible for short form.

DK: My next question actually elaborates on that. When I had the pleasure of being interviewed by you for HONY, you said something about the process that really resonated with me. You told me that the art behind HONY is identifying and extracting a story from each individual that will resonate with millions of New Yorkers. And that’s exactly what happens. With every post, the reader immediately morphs into the person whose story you’re telling. We feel like we’re walking in their shoes for a brief time. So many people try to capture this level of empathy but fail. What do you think it is about you, or about the process that makes this possible?

BS: I appreciate you saying that. There’s something singular about Humans of New York. There are two main components that make that possible. I would say it is a mix of the interview and the writing. Probably, the most distinctive and interesting part is the interview. After doing over 10,000 of them, I have an instinct of how to find the story. You were a little bit different because I am now taking submissions, so I had an idea about your story. I had a little bit of a framework to start with, and then we went deep. And deep we went.

A lot of times, on the street, I’m starting from absolute zero, so the conversation starts very big. I start with these very broad questions, “What’s your biggest challenge?” Or, “What’s been your biggest obstacle?” And with a lot of…probing feels like a strong word, but it’s feeling out a person’s experience and what they’ve been through, you find out what the person’s been through. I always say, “if you can find out what a person has wrestled with the most, you can find that person’s expertise, because we tend to think the most about the things we struggle with.” They are the things we think the most about and the things we have the most insight into. Running is a huge part of your life and running allows you to overcome your struggles. You had some beautiful insights into running that nobody could have had that didn’t run as much as you do. As I was talking with you, I realized, “This is the conversation I can have with this person that I can’t can’t have with the other 10,000 people I’ve interviewed. This is what’s going to make her story different. This is what makes her fascinating. This is what I’m going to dig into,” and that’s where we went with our interview.

DK: This aligns perfectly with my next question – the process of creating New Yorkers’ stories. I’m so fortunate that I have some insight from my experience with you. Would it be okay if we go through the process, step by step?

BS: Yes, absolutely.

DK: So, first of all: finding someone to interview. I know you said that my case is different because I was nominated, but even with submissions, you must get hundreds, if not thousands of nominations. And then when you’re walking down the street, do you think to yourself, “Hey, that person could have a story that millions of people will relate to, or at least be impacted by, let’s interview him or her.”

Brandon Stanton: Right. Well, it’s not the main variable about whether or not someone has a story. Everyone has a story. It’s sharing a story in a giant block of text. The concept is really working against the flow of social media. It’s working against the grain to have people scrolling through their newsfeed, with all these bells and whistles and quick videos and pictures, and have that person stop on a giant block of text that is literally the most amount of characters that Instagram will allow you to put into a caption. Every single one of my captions is within 1% of the 2,200 character limit. And to have somebody stop their scrolling and commit that amount of time is a very difficult task. 

So, my job is to find an angle, or an element of someone’s life that will be compelling enough to create that behavior, which is to have people stop and read. The thing that I’m normally looking for is some sort of struggle that that person’s been through. In your instance, you went through something very real – your father passed away at a young age and then you had multiple struggles that you’ve gone through since. Those weren’t hard to find. For other people, they might be more subtle, more emotional struggles, but they’re always there. They’re always there and they’re always interesting if somebody will be honest. So, the main variable isn’t whether or not somebody’s been through something, because we’ve all been through something – whether it’s more dramatic, like losing your father at a young age or more existential, like being a teenager not even knowing what you want to do with your life – that can be interesting. It’s if the person is willing to be honest enough about it, to make it more than a caricature, more than surface level. The variable that makes someone able to be the subject for a compelling Humans of New York story is not what they’ve been through, as much as their willingness to be honest and vulnerable about it. If I’m working on the street, there’s the added variable of being willing to be open and vulnerable enough about it with an absolute stranger. So, that’s the main distinguishing variable about whether or not somebody will make it on the blog.

DK: As you said, everyone has a story to share, if they’re willing to share it.  As we’ve talked about before, there’s a lot of fear around exposing yourself and being that vulnerable.

BS: Exactly. Here’s an example of…I don’t like to use the word bad, but here’s what an interview would look like that wouldn’t be as usable: Me asking you, “Do you remember a single tough moment when you were dealing with depression? Can you remember a single night when you felt the most depressed?” I’m making this up because our conversation was very open and honest. You would have given me a very specific example that happened, in which you would have described in great detail. But you could have easily said, “Oh, not a single night in particular, they were all tough.” People protect themselves by not going into detail. You’re not lying but you’re not willing to be vulnerable enough to give an amount of detail that’s going to bring your story beyond the level of a caricature and make it real. You asked earlier about empathy. It occurs because the story gets down into the details enough that make each person distinguished from the other thousands of people who’ve been through a similar experience and that’s what makes it seem real.

Recently, there was a really powerful HONY story about a woman growing up with a neglectful mother and her sister kept her alive. It was very powerful. It wasn’t, “Oh, we were hungry all the time.”  It was, “My mother was weird about food, she would always make a Sunday dinner, but only Sunday dinner. During the rest of the week, my sister Diamond kept me alive by feeding me Honey Buns and Welch’s Fruit Snacks and Cheez-Its. We can’t stand the taste of any of those things anymore.” Do you see how different that is compared to “We were hungry all the time?” She was willing to go into a very real amount of detail. It seems inconsequential – small details like Cheez-Its or Honey Buns or Welch’s Fruit Snacks – like why do the actual names of those matter? But that’s what makes it so real. That’s what allows people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. And yeah, it requires a lot of honesty from the subject.

DK: Wow. That is incredible but also makes complete sense. Changing gears slightly: as every business school student knows, the key to success is preparation, besides in this case. I remember texting you the day before my interview, asking if there’s any way I should prepare. You said, “No, come as you are.” Do you have to do anything to prepare before meeting with subjects?

BS: I actually don’t like to. People will send me articles or books that have been written about them or little films that have been made about them. I won’t read or watch them beforehand. 

For me, the magic is in the conversation and in hearing things for the first time. Maybe I’m lying to myself. Maybe I’m just lazy and I’m telling myself it’s part of my process, but I always like to go in blind and have everything come organically out of conversation. The stories have been a little different during the pandemic because I’ve been taking submissions, where people will give me a very short outline of their lives, and then I will do a deep interview. That’s kind of the way that you came to me. Your friends wrote a short email about your life and then we kind of ended up going into more of a psychological kind of underpinnings of what happened to you; how you felt about it; and how you’re dealing with it. But yeah, I don’t do much preparation at all.

DK:  In my instance, I was expecting you to ask about the pandemic and what it was like working as a healthcare provider during the past year and a half, but you didn’t go for the obvious story. Was that intentional or did it just work out that way?

BS: I don’t know if it’s that I’m looking for the thing that you can speak most eloquently about, or the thing that makes you the most unique out of the people I’ve interviewed, or if those two things are intrinsically the same. I have had 10,000 of these conversations, so I’m always looking for things that I haven’t heard before. Once I start to hear something different – that’s where I really dig in. There are not many people that run as much as you do, and then your father was a runner. There is a common thread between the two stories. Running becomes the spine, the backbone. 

A lot of this craft is just having done it 10,000 times. People ask me why I don’t record. I write down everything people say – I type every word on my iPhone. People ask, isn’t it more efficient just to record audio? But it’s almost as if I’m writing the story as I’m taking these notes. I’m writing the story with my questions. I’m kind of seeing it structured in front of me and I’m asking particular questions because I had a feeling your story would begin and end with running. It began with your father running and we ended with you running. That was the theme that carried. No pun intended: it ran throughout the entire story. Around that spine, we built on a lot of the things that you were going through and then we examined how running was able to allow you to cope with the struggle and to overcome the struggle. A lot of that structure is intuitive from composing so many of these stories.

I think my favorite compliment I’ve gotten recently was from Tony of Harlem. He goes, “Man, you took my words and you wrote a song.” That’s the results of a lot of questioning. Obviously, my questions aren’t in there, so there needs to be some structuring that takes the raw material and the raw poetry that somebody is able to give me and build it to a climax. I’ve always really liked that formula of my process.

DK: The craziest part is that you somehow unearth things about people that they don’t even know themselves!

BS: I think the best interviews are when we’re thinking through something for the first time together. That is when the best stuff comes out. The worst interviews are when someone knows exactly what they’re going to say. It’s normally coupled with a conviction that they are a very interesting person. Those are normally the worst interviews, when someone’s so self assured, because it’s like they’re presenting a persona, not a person. The best interviews are when the interview gets very slow, and the person’s pausing a lot and thinking and being challenged. That’s when you know you’re kind of getting down beneath the layers to the real motivations, and some of the hidden stuff. Don’t get me wrong, there are exceptions to all this. Some people just blurt out the greatest monologue in the entire world, and it’s real and edgy and weird and crazy, and I just write it all down and post it. 

DK: You portray that lack of ego in those people when you publish their stories. The reader can tell they have no intention of trying to show off or put up a fake facade. They’re telling you something that’s very real that very few people would be able to have access to.

BS: It’s very endearing. Lack of ego is the quickest way to people’s hearts.

DK: Absolutely. I want to talk a little more about your interviewing technique, because it is so interesting, but the finished product really speaks to how much it works for you. So, if you don’t mind, I’m going to tell you about my experience and what I observed.

BS: Go for it. 

DK: We meet and we go sit down somewhere. You take a few photos on your Canon camera and then you pull out your phone – not to record the conversation – but to open your Notes app to type. You begin to ask very thought-provoking questions that you don’t seem to have prepared. I answer, as you furiously type on your phone. But you’re also actively listening. I can tell that you’re engaged in the conversation because you’re gauging my emotional responses and asking deep follow-up questions. Then, if you see me lost in my thoughts or having a moment, you drop the phone, grab the camera, and snap a few photos before returning to your phone to furiously type again, all without losing a moment in the conversation. It’s incredible, it’s surprising, and it’s so different from how the rest of us operate. How did this become the process and why does it work so well for you?

BS: I’ll turn this question around on you and ask what you mean by, “How the rest of us operate?” You say it’s so different. What about it was so unique for you?

DK: Okay. So for example, to prepare for this interview, I sat down yesterday, thought through what I wanted to ask you, and typed my questions up. Today, I’m recording this because I would not trust my written notes. As you’re answering my questions, I’m mentally taking notes on what to ask you to elaborate on or highlight when I write this up. I feel like I need to be organized in order to not lose the essence of your answers. However, you don’t need that structure.

BS: What you just described is presence, which is ironic, because in my childhood and sometimes, still today, I get pegged as a spacey person – someone who is always in my own head, 1,000 miles away. But something flips when I’m on the street and I’m in the presence of somebody. I think it’s the closest I get to meditation, a period where I’m not thinking about anything, not thinking about my work, or the future, or what I’m worried about, or bills, or how I look, or anything, except for the other person’s story. I’m very intensely present and actively listening. There’s a comfort in that. It’s very hard to achieve that, especially in the presence of a stranger.

I think one of the reasons that you probably organize and prepare is that there are stakes involved. You have an hour and you need to maximize this time. So, you don’t want there to be any dead space. You want to have a list of questions to avoid all of that. But if you can be completely present, there’s no need for organization. The problem is when the stakes are high, it’s hard to be perfectly present. You’re nervous about messing up or this or that. I mentioned I’ve approached over 10,000 people. The first hundred times, I was very nervous. The next few hundred times, I was a little less nervous, and so on. Until I got to the point where I could be in the presence of a stranger and be as comfortable as if they were a very good friend of mine. From the moment I walk up to them on a busy sidewalk, I can immediately be present and listen to them very intensely and then it becomes curiosity. It’s curiosity because every question is based on something that the person just said, because I’m listening very intently, and the story is interesting. There’s something about each person that I have never heard before, so there’s something I can learn from each person I’ve met. They’ve been through something that I’ve never been through before. They have thought about something very deeply that I have never thought about before, and that is fascinating to me. 

The first part is a process. That’s more organizational, I have my first question and then something clicks, and I get really interested. I feel heat. It could be something that is intellectually fascinating or it could just be an emotional journey, and I think, “Oh my gosh, I’m feeling such pathos and empathy for this person.” Then, I just follow my curiosity at that point, which is a proxy for the audience’s curiosity. 

I’ve never written a story that made people cry, if I didn’t cry… that’s not completely true, but if I’m not really feeling what that person is saying, I don’t think the audience will either. I think Hemingway said, “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” and that’s true for me. There is an immense amount of feeling that happens in these conversations, and my ability as an artist and the success of Humans of New York is being able to use my craft to reconstruct the story in a way that will mimic and create the exact same feeling in the reader that I had when I was listening to it for the very first time. That’s the art.

DK: In order to be the artist that you are, you have to convey the pain in these stories. How do you separate yourself in the end, so that you can continue on living well and continue on doing this without burning yourself out?

BS:  Well… you won’t believe this! The example that just came to mind of a profession that requires a lot more of this is somebody who works in a pediatric cancer ward. I wasn’t even thinking about you, oh, this is so funny. I guess I could ask you the same question. 

But think about Dr. Laquaglia, whom you work with at Memorial Sloan Cancer Center. He operates on pediatric cancer patients, some of which die. How does he deal with that? It is so emotional for him. He cares about these kids. But surgery is what I want to call a craft for him. I guess, it is a craft, even if performing surgery comes with very high stakes. I think people who come very close to pain protect themselves through the framework of their craft. Like a therapist, they are looking at things very technically.

There is a huge element of craft in Humans of New York. In the midst of hearing very painful things, I am also very focused on telling the story, crafting the right questions, and getting the right information in order to reconstruct what you’re telling me into a story that’s going to capture the essence, the spirit, the soul, and the heart of what you’ve been through.

When Dr. Laquaglia is finished with his craft, there is an impact made on the patient. The person is hopefully healed in some way. He has been able to do something about the suffering in a way that I think insulates him, or empowers him, or gives him energy and strength. When I have done my craft well, I am able to portray this person’s story in a way that is going to allow them to feel heard, to feel seen, to comfort other people who have been in that exact same situation, and give them a moment of catharsis that, in a way, is also healing – not as tangible as removing a tumor from a child’s brain – but in a way that removes an emotional burden in a very real way.

DK: My mind is blown. You know how much I love Dr. Laquaglia and the way that you are able to find the symmetry between what you and Dr. Laquaglia do, to make someone’s load lighter, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard. 

***at this moment, my dog decides that she needs to interject with her own questions and incessant barking.***

I’m so sorry!

BS: No, don’t apologize. If you don’t have dogs barking or kids in the background in the years 2020 and 2021, then something is not right.

DK: *while silently giving my 7-month-old puppy the death stare* What do you do when you’re not running Humans of New York?

BS: Part of my sanity and happiness comes from not putting much out there about myself. I’ve been able to find this interesting way of interacting with social media that shields me from the insanity and the toxicity of it. I dodge a lot of that. It can seep into your personality by always looking for validation, and therefore causing you to mold your life, thoughts and personality into these narrow channels that you’ve been trained and conditioned will get likes, shares, and retweets. I’ve been able to avoid that by keeping my stories always centered on other people and keeping myself out of it. So, I don’t talk about my personal life very much. I have a family that I get a lot of nurturing from, and I hopefully give them a lot of nurturing in return.

DK: I wish you could give a seminar on staying true to yourself and successfully utilizing social media for the betterment of society.

BS: I don’t engage with social media in the way that most people do. I think the ability to make an impact without being a celebrity has allowed me to maintain this level of normalcy and emotional health.

DK: It’s really exceptional. Speaking of toxicity and negative feedback, how do you keep HONY so positive? It’s bewildering. If you look at every post, all the comments are just so full of love. There’s never anything negative and you don’t curate the comments.

BS: A lot of it is a self-selecting culture that has built up. Occasionally, I have nudged, especially early on, but I have not had to do that in a long time and I’ve never had to steer the culture. When you think about the people who follow Humans of New York, it’s those who have genuine compassion for other people. It’s very simple. Otherwise, you’re going to get bored. If you’re not interested in the inner lives of other people and curious about other people, you’re not going to engage with the content. You’re going to move on and you’re going to find whatever it is that makes you laugh or outraged on social media. 

Now, for the people who stick around, these are the people who genuinely tend to care about other people, who want to know about their lives, who want to sit down and commune with them for a second. If they feel so moved, they donate to others. What you have left is a group of millions of people who care about people, and that’s why the culture is so good. That’s why we’ve raised 30 million bucks for various causes, because the common denominator is it’s a community who loves others.

DK: This correlates with your mission of having a greater impact on the community and world. For everyone reading this, they should follow your Patreon page to support your work. The blog gives the reader a unique viewpoint of your objectives and shares your mission of making a broader impact. Can you talk more about this and your goals for HONY going forward?

BS: For the longest time, I was optimizing my storytelling. I was just trying to tell the best stories possible, and if there was an opportunity to make a difference or raise money or promote a cause, I would take it. But ultimately, I was trying to create the best stories possible. Recently, I’ve changed that mindset due to a health scare I had last year that gave me a new perspective on some things. Now, I want to optimize for impact. I’m really looking for opportunities to use my work to make some sort of change. Obviously, there’s marshaling resources. I think in the last year we’ve raised around eight to ten million dollars for various causes.

I want to go back to that business term – competitive advantage. HONY is in a unique position to move people. There’s something transformative about storytelling where minds can be changed. It’s much more powerful than monetary resources. A really good story can sink down into you and change your lens on things.

If you change the way people think about things, that changes the way that they talk to people, which might change their behaviors. Stories can model people going through things like trauma in a healthy way, so that other people going through similar trauma can learn from that and can take comfort from their stories.

Forming community is also big on my mind right now, because I think that many people are dealing with isolation. We were trending that way anyway and the pandemic accelerated it massively. Modeling people who model community is important to me. I am looking for opportunities as much as possible to present people with behaviors that impact the world so that other people can take inspiration from it. I’ve got this huge audience and this massive amount of power. Who knows how long that’s going to last? The ability to tell stories to millions of people is a massive, massive privilege. It’s been 12 years now and I feel like I’m on borrowed time. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but right now I’ve got it. And for the time left that I have it, how can I create as much impact as possible? That’s where my mind is right now.

DK: Brandon Stanton doing greater good for society. It was already evident from your posts, and talking to you today has made that so much clearer. One final question – is there any wisdom you want to impart on some of the future Business Leaders New York? I’ll call it BLONY!

BS: You should know what your life’s about or you’re just going to be swayed by circumstance, grabbing the next shiny object, the next promotion, the next 20% raise, or whatever it is that you think is going to give you fulfillment or motivation. Money’s the easy one. Everyone knows it’s not good to go after money your whole life or you’re going to end up feeling empty. The more subtle one is prestige. That’s the one that’s the most subtle and dangerous. The need for it often gets planted as a child – whether your parents weren’t giving you affection, or you were going for your parents approval, or you were made to feel insignificant in high school. You’re trying to fill that void with prestige as a proxy for fulfillment.

What will be more lasting is how you helped people – the amount of pain that you took away in the world. I would encourage everyone to examine very early on what you’re going to optimize for or you’re just going to be on a hamster wheel.

DK: That’s very valuable advice. I think prestige is something that a lot of people get wrapped up in, especially when it correlates with career success and constantly looking at the next step. It’s key to remember our value proposition has nothing to do with prestige. 

Brandan, thank you so much! You’ve been a wonderful subject to interview. It’s been fun to flip it around and get to interview you for a change! 

BS: Thank you.

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