‘Humans of New York’ Founder Brandon Stanton on Serial Obsessions, How to Build a Sensibility, the Dignity-Conferring Power of Listening, and the Value of Time
By Maria Popova
In the summer of 2010, Brandon Stanton found himself a laid off bond trader with little more than a camera, a nascent love of photography, and a desperate need to reorient his life. In just a few years, he became one of the most vitalizing visual storytellers and humanists of our time through Humans of New York — his labor-of-love project, which his mother first saw as “a thinly veiled attempt to avoid employment” and which went on to become a massive cultural phenomenon that moves millions of hearts daily. It has transcended photography and blossomed into something much larger, landing Brandon at the White House on multiple occasions and moving the cultural dial on issues ranging from public education to interfaith dialogue to the most urgent frontiers of politics.
In his interview on Debbie Millman’s Design Matters — one of the world’s first and finest podcasts — Brandon traces the unlikely path that led him to Humans of New York and its global emanations. What unfolds is a wonderfully wide-ranging conversation about serial obsessions, depression, how community college changed his life, why he spent a year reading 100 pages of great literature a day, what it takes to build a creative sensibility, the value of time not as a means but as an end in itself, the dignity-conferring power of listening to strangers’ stories, and the rich, complex, immensely nuanced nature of the human experience. Transcribed highlights below.
On how he went from the deeply introspective state in which depression had left him to being someone who talks to thousands of strangers:
Being social is a learned skill… Being social — talking to people, communicating with people — is something that can be developed, just like any other skill, algebra or spelling… I was so scared when I fist started [Humans of New York] — I was just terrified of talking to strangers, I didn’t know if it was something you could do. Now it’s second nature. Talking to people or approaching anyone is something I don’t even think about — it’s not something that I have to build up the courage to do. It was an earned skill.
On turning adversity into opportunity:
During the time I was working as a bond trader, all I was thinking about was the markets — I was just obsessed with it. But I didn’t view myself as somebody who just wanted to make money — that wasn’t my personal identity. I viewed myself as a creative person who was going to build this cushion of security and then make a pivot and do creative things that I love…
Once I finally lost my job, I looked back on those two years and I’d lost that time and I didn’t have any money to show for it. I thought that, more than the physical time, I needed mental time — I needed freedom of mind to do the things that I wanted to do. And so [although] I was so afraid of getting fired, the day that I got fired was strangely relieving — I suddenly had all this thought-energy and I could start thinking about what I really wanted to do… It was through that thinking that Humans of New York eventually emerged.
I was just looking for a way to photograph all day long because, remember, I had spent two years thinking about nothing but money and I came out of that [wanting] to make just enough money [so that] I can do exactly what I want to do all day long, and support myself… I had $600 coming in every two weeks from unemployment benefits and that was enough to maybe pay my rent and eat about two meals a day. And so I lived in a room in a sublet in Bed Stuy, which just had a mattress in the middle of the floor. There was no furniture, nothing on the walls. I didn’t go to bars, I didn’t go to restaurants, I didn’t go to movies — I didn’t go to anything. All I did was photograph. So that — mixed with a few odd jobs, mixed with some loans from my friends — was enough to keep me afloat for about a year and a half.
On the development of his sensibility — lest we forget, the great Agnes Martin asserted that “the development of sensibility is the most important thing” — through the incremental transmutation of quantity into quality:
I taught myself to photograph… I would find something I wanted to photograph — like a street sign, or graffiti, or whatever — and I would photograph it 20 different ways, from 20 different angles, because I had no idea what I was trying to do. And then I would go home and I would look at those 20 shots, and I would choose my favorite one. And through that, I started to learn what it was that my aesthetic was drawn to — what it was that I enjoyed. And so, next time, I’m not taking 20 photos — I’m taking 15, because I have a little bit more of an idea, then ten, then five.
On time not as a means to some achievement-oriented end but as an end — an invaluable resource, or as Thomas Mann believed, the soul of existence — in and of itself:
The whole bond trading experience made me realize the value of time as a resource. You’re oriented to think of time as a means of accumulating — not just accumulating material things, but accumulating degrees or extracurricular activities or things that look good in a job interview. We view our time as a means to accumulate things that will help us reach our ends. [And yet time is] not only a resource itself, but the most valuable resource you have is what you do with your time. [I decided to] say, “Okay, I’m going to put that front and center, and I’m going to not try to use my time to structure a life, but I’m going to put time front and center and try to make the decisions that are necessary to where I completely own my time.”
On taking the time to honor complexity and nuance amid a culture of black-and-white snap judgments:
DEBBIE MILLMAN: Do people scare you with some of their stories — do you hear things that frighten you?
BRANDON STANTON: It’s a good question. There’s a large range of human experience… I just went to five different federal prisons and I interviewed thirty inmates. I think that the truth — and this is a dangerous line to draw, because you get into moral relativism — but I think the truth is always exculpatory… If you dig down into why this woman strangled this 11-year-old girl, you learn about her paranoid schizophrenia, which she didn’t know was schizophrenia — she thought [there] were people talking to her. And then if you dig back even further than that, you find out about the uncle who raped her every night, from the age of seven to eleven. And you start to realize that these people are acting with the information that they had about the world, and they were speaking in the language that they knew.
And once you dig down to that level, everything can be explained.
DEBBIE MILLMAN: It’s a very compassionate, very generous view of humanity.
BRANDON STANTON: And, it’s not a view that can be necessarily acted upon — because there needs to be…
DEBBIE MILLMAN: …what is excusable and what is forgivable.
BRANDON STANTON: Exactly. And you do need to draw those lines. You had schizophrenia? I’m sorry, you killed somebody… [But] this is one thing this prison series really opened up to me — the schism in America between compassion and accountability, and it is a schism that runs through every comment section I have where somebody admits something [difficult].
Published March 15, 2016