Brandon, did your mother ever tell you not to talk to strangers?
"I imagine that she did," Brandon Stanton said, laughing.
Stanton, a 33-year-old photographer and writer, is the creator of Humans of New York, a blog and New York Times best-selling book series. He spoke Saturday at the University at Buffalo as part of the Distinguished Speaker series. Stanton replaced James Franco as the Student Choice speaker.
For the past six years, Stanton has stopped strangers on the street to hear their stories and take their photos. He has shared those stories on his Humans of New York website and in a pair of books that followed.
In a sense, his blog and books have 10,000 authors – each of the people who have shared their stories with Stanton. Stories of cancer, drugs, love, heartbreak, homelessness, hope, goals, wins, losses and everything in between.
Humans of New York displays ordinary individuals sharing vulnerable moments of their lives candidly.
In an interview before his speech, Stanton talked about his devotion to storytelling.
"I do connect with these people’s stories," he said. "It’s not just in a strict journalistic way. I take a deep interest and curiosity in what they are telling me."
Photography was not a long-held dream for Stanton. He recalls enjoying disposable cameras at a young age, but capturing photographs was a pastime that developed near age 26.
Humans of New York was not a fully conceived idea from the start. Originally, he would search for colorful, eccentric souls to capture – eye candy for the camera. A photo with an identifiable story. No words needed.
Eventually he started adding captions, then quotes, then interviews. Before long, Humans of New York wasn’t about photography. Storytelling was at the heart of it all.
"Some people – all they have is their story," Stanton said. "The one thing they have means something to me."
Stanton isn’t the only one touched by these stories. Humans of New York has a following of 25 million people.
When asked to describe the mission of his work, Stanton instantly denied having one.
"I avoid finding a purpose to storytelling," he said.
Stanton isn’t trying to tell the story of humanity. He tells the stories of New York City one human at a time. He’s told so many, he occasionally runs into a former stranger on the street.
"New York, when you’ve interviewed 10,000 people, is an amazingly small town," he said.
Upon reconnecting, Stanton asks them about the experience.
He says, "I never want people to feel like HONY was something done to them, not done with them. I ask people, ‘did you see yourself, did you hear your voice?’ "
Stanton doesn’t particularly find his own life to be Humans of New York material.
He recalls a rough chapter at age 20. After flunking out of the University of Georgia, Stanton paid his way through community college to obtain a job trading bonds in Chicago.
After losing that job, Stanton moved to NYC and bought a camera. Sleeping on a floor mattress in an apartment with three Craigslist roommates, Stanton spent his days pursuing and developing his now very successful career.
Stanton hesitates to call this rough patch his biggest challenge. Hearing the struggles of 10,000 strangers has been a humbling experience. He feels that his pales in comparison.
"I feel selfish describing it as my biggest obstacle," he said.
Stanton often asks about a person’s biggest obstacle. He has discovered that there is almost no question that people won’t answer if you ask with interest.
"There’s a difference between conversations and interviews," he said. "It’s not about being prepared, it’s about being present. Connecting with the human in front of you."
This is why Stanton considers himself a storyteller, rather than a journalist.
The stories come out of the moment. Never will Stanton utter the words "tell me your story."
He prefers to dig below usual talking points to the connective tissues that hold everyone together.
"Its validating to have a person take the time to hear your story," Stanton says. The Humans of New York conversations have come to be an opportunity to either share the joys in the soul or unload the burdens of the heart.
Stanton has gotten comfortable talking to strangers. He walks up to a person with the expectation that not only will they allow him to shoot a portrait, but that in a matter of minutes, he will uncover more than meets the eye. He’ll learn what makes them uniquely human.
Julie Lillis is a junior at Mount St. Mary Academy.