Years ago, a young man from Georgia moved to New York with a camera and a plan to photograph 10,000 people. Now, Brandon Stanton’s “Humans of New York” has developed into two books, and he’ll visit Seattle’s Benaroya Hall on Oct. 22 to talk about the series’ origins.
Hard to believe, but there are times when Brandon Stanton walks the streets of New York City and can’t find a single person to talk to.
It seems that no one has that certain something to become one of his “Humans of New York” (HONY), the photo blog he started seven years ago that has developed into two books and a streaming series on Facebook.
“You would be amazed how long I walk before I find someone,” Stanton said the other day, on the phone from — surprise! — New York City. “They have to be approachable and in a reflective moment and, more than anything, have the time.
The author of “Humans of New York” appears at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22 at Benaroya Hall, S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, 200 University Street, Seattle; $27-$55 (seattlesymphony.org)
“And in New York, that’s the hottest commodity,” he said. “They would rather give you money than time.”
Most Read Life Stories
- Reopening phases in Washington state: When you can get a haircut, go to the gym, or eat at restaurants as coronavirus lockdowns are lifted
- 'What will the years coming look like?': Coronavirus has thrown a wrench into Washingtonians' retirement plans
- 3 Seattle spots restaurant critic Bethany Jean Clement especially loves for takeout now VIEW
- Lighter, fresher and with a crunch — here's a macaroni salad for modern times
- Q&A: Here’s the best way to keep worms out of your strawberries
On Oct. 22, Stanton will take the stage of the S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium at Benaroya Hall to talk about the series’ origins, the art of drawing people out in both words and pictures, and how people seem to crave that connection more and more.
HONY started as a quest to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street. “An exhaustive catalog of the city’s inhabitants,” is how Stanton puts it on his website.
He would post a single portrait and just a few, highly-distilled quotes from random inhabitants of the Big Apple. Seven years later, HONY has 20 million likes on Facebook and almost 6 million followers on Instagram.
His first book, “Humans of New York” spent 45 weeks on The New York Times’ best-seller list. The follow-up, “Humans of New York: Stories” was released in 2015.
In addition to the still photos, Stanton did about 1,200 interviews on film over the last four years and was looking for a way to produce and post them. Facebook was looking for original content, “And thought it would be the best fit.”
Each of the 13 episodes is 18-20 minutes long and built around a theme: “Help.” “Time.” “Relationships.” and “Home.”
“I wanted them to be something greater,” he said.
HONY has its imitators. There’s Humans of Drexel University, Humans of Bombay, Humans of Puget Sound and a book called “Canines of New York,” among others.
HONY was built from a simple premise, but Stanton has struck gold over and over, with moving posts about a young gay boy afraid for his future (Hillary Clinton and Ellen DeGeneres were among the 60,000 people to comment); a boy named Vidal who raised $1 million to send kids from his school to visit Harvard; a woman struggling with body image; children being bullied; and a recurring series about a boy battling brain cancer that helped raise $3.8 million for pediatric-cancer research.
Stanton walks the streets and approaches people at random, he said. The interviews take 45 minutes to an hour.
Even after all these years, Stanton is mystified by the intimacy that can come from a brief conversation between total strangers.
“The most interesting and different element is the randomness of it,” he said. “The honest and vulnerable moments are coming from complete strangers that I only met a few minutes beforehand. I am just stopping these people on the street.”
Half of them turn him down, he said.
“When you see these distilled moments, I think they’re a little deceptive in that so much of the work that goes into them is not seen,” he said. “These moments are distilled moments of long amounts of work that went into finding these people and doing the interviews.
“That’s what most of my process is,” he said. “Finding someone I can talk to.”
When he approaches someone, he tells them, “I tell the stories of the humans of New York.”
“I think the immediate thing anyone thinks when I approach is ‘Oh, God,’ ” he said. “So I approach with the minimum amount of edge. I try to be as least aggressive and least intimidating as possible.”
It’s not easy: Stanton is 6 feet 4 inches tall.
“I have to counteract that,” he said with a laugh. “So I lean back, in every way. It’s the opposite of pushing.”
Over the years, Stanton has become more comfortable asking people “pointed questions” about their lives.
“I think what they tell me is a reflection of the energy I am giving out,” he said. “I have been able to approach so many people that I can get to a comfortable place quickly. I am comfortable with the interaction, so I can lend some of that comfort to the person.”
He has conversations, he said. Not interviews. (“They’re vastly different.”)
But he does have a list of questions, two or three conversation starters. “Entry points,” he calls them.
“Then every one of my questions is based on what they’re saying,” Stanton said. “They are leading the interview.”
Stanton’s own story “is one of the crazier ‘Humans of New York’ stories there are,” he said.
A native of Marietta, Georgia, he moved to New York City without any photography experience, just a goal to photograph 10,000 people. Surviving on unemployment checks (he worked as a bond trader in Chicago for a spell) and family help, he started a photo blog, then moved everything to Facebook.
“Ultimately, I am trying to tell stories as opposed to overarching lessons,” he said. “The most important thing is focusing on the storytelling.”
The experience has changed him, he said.
Not only was he named one of Time Magazine’s “30 Under 30 People Changing the World” in 2013, he has traveled to the Middle East to photograph people as part of a United Nations photography project, and in 2015 was invited to the Oval Office to interview President Barack Obama.
But he is a braver man than the young guy from Georgia who moved to the big city with a camera, a plan and not much else.
It’s almost as if the city has shrunk around him.
“I had to come a long way,” he said. “I started being so nervous to even take a photo of another person, and now, several years later, I am walking up to random strangers in anticipation that in a short amount of time I will be talking with them about something that is important in their life.
“It’s amazing how much people will share with each other if only people will ask them.”
And that is the magic, the warmth that draws people to their cool screens to see who he has found — and what he has heard.
“When you are really, really, really listening to someone — and I can’t put enough ‘reallys’ out there,” Stanton said, “that is a rare moment in someone’s life.”