Slice of Life

Humans of New York’s Brandon Stanton shares his rise to social media fame

Moriah Ratner | Staff Photgrapher

Brandon Stanton of the popular photo blog Humans of New York spoke Monday night in Goldstein Auditorium as part of a collaboration between University Union and the University Lectures series

Two young boys — unknown to each other — stand in a Chicago subway with their mothers. Capturing this moment catapulted Brandon Stanton’s career as a photographer of strangers, and in four short years he would find himself in the White House photographing then-President Barack Obama in the Oval Office.

Stanton went from a hobby photographer living in a Brooklyn apartment he found on Craigslist to the creator of Humans of New York, a popular photo blog of portraits documenting the lives of strangers he meets on the streets.

The photographer spoke to the Syracuse community in Goldstein Auditorium as part of University Lectures in conjunction with University Union on Monday night. He spoke of his story of success and how his life wasn’t always the way it is today.

Stanton was a college dropout who eventually went back for his degree. He went from a successful bonds trader in Chicago to sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a New York apartment. But it was OK. He was on his way to building his redemption story, one that would garner over 18 million Facebook likes, 6.6 million Instagram followers and worldwide adoration of his work.

He said the day he got fired as a bond trader in Chicago was “a good day” because it forced him to ask, “What do I want to do with my time?” — a mantra that would become the foundation of Humans of New York which he started in 2010.

“I put the highest value of life on time,” he said, adding that he did so because it was the one thing that he couldn’t buy back.

He sold a photo he took for $300 to a friend and moved to New York City — a city he had never been to before — and started documenting the lives of the people who reside in it. Stanton risked everything to tell the stories of random people he stopped on the street and now the world loves him for it.

“In my experience, following dreams correctly was nothing but hard work,” he said.

He added that New York, and the world, is filled with people who use following their dreams as an excuse to not work hard. That they are doing just enough to call themselves whatever they want without getting a job.

“If I waited for the idea of Humans of New York, I would’ve never created Humans of New York,” Stanton said. “Along the way of figuring out the idea, I figured out and became what I needed to be.”

And the idea continued to grow.

While Stanton’s photo blogs are known for the snippets of people’s lives with each photo, this was not always the case. He used to only post photos he had taken, but it was not until he photographed a woman dressed in all green told him something that intrigued him.

She said she had once dressed in one color everyday, but she had a really good day on the day she wore all green so she continued to do so for 15 years. Stanton reiterated this story along with the photo onto his Facebook page and it received the most likes he had had up to that time — a whole 63 of them.

It was this experience that got Stanton to start interviewing all of his subjects, asking them the most intimate questions in order to give the world a glimpse into their daily lives.

In discovering this, Stanton realized that the magic of the photo blog was not the city, but the interaction with complete strangers and being someone who was generally interested in listening to their stories. This is when Humans of New York went both national and international. Stanton has done series on pediatric cancer, the refugee crisis in Europe, favelas in Brazil and inmates in the American prison system, just to name a few.

He attributes the success of these anecdotes to his goal of telling random stories and having no agenda in the message is getting out. And his method continues to grow.

The audience of the sold-out event also got a special treat. In his next step forward, Stanton has been working on a pilot for a series of the blog, which he said he is working on pitching to major networks. He gave the crowd, the first public audience to view the footage, a taste of what would be next for the beloved blog.

While Stanton said he knows luck and timing was a part of Humans of New York’s success, it was his hard work and dedication to the photo blog that now has him traveling around the world to tell the random stories of people in other countries.

“I started Humans of New York because I wanted to make a living around doing what I love to do every day,” he said. “I wanted to wake up in the morning and choose the work that I do.”

And this is the message Stanton left with the audience: Be willing to commit yourself, start before you’re ready, figure out your passion and work on it like it’s your job. That is something everybody can do.

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