Thoughts on Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York
Brandon Stanton’s art looks like something easy and fun to do, but behind the beautiful images and the heart whelming stories there’s a lot of work and commitment. During the last six years Brandon photographed thousands of people, first in New York and afterwards in cities from over twenty countries like Pakistan, Iran, India, Ukraine, Vietnam.
Before all the attention and success and before his stories could have a positive impact on the world, Brandon used to work as a bond trader. Like many of us, he believed he needed to make money first and focus on his creative endeavours afterwards, but soon realized that wasn’t the path for him. After getting fired from his job he changed his mindset and decided to figure out a way to do what he loved doing, while making enough money to survive. He started Humans of New York as a photography project that involved photographing 10 000 New Yorkers on the street. So in the first three months all he did the entire day was to go outside and take photos of strangers. Somewhere along the way, his attention shifted to the people and what they had to say and focused less on the images themselves. In time the conversations they had turned into short interviews that eventually felt more and more like therapy sessions.
How is it possible that so many people opened up in such a deep way to a stranger who happened to stop them on the street?
To answer that, think about the times you’ve spoken to someone who didn’t have any misconception about you, any previously altered idea. Or the times you’ve been talking to someone whose mind was focused 100% on you and only you. Not so many, isn’t it? Brandon’s genuine interest and curiosity in people led him to a kind of connection unfamiliar to many and when they’ve found it, they embraced it hungrily. Brandon also says he sometimes gets to a point in the conversation when he asks people things they themselves haven’t been thinking of up to that point, so they have a breakthrough in discovering something hidden deep inside of them and this can be very overwhelming. No wonder the experience feels like therapy, it is liberating and it’s followed by hugs and cries and gratitude.
After discovering his story one thing stood out, just as it does for every other person who achieved great things, and that is the effort and the discipline put into the work. I only recently began to understand how important these two things are. To be honest, I’m not there yet. I still procrastinate and have days when I don’t feel like doing the work and it’s hard to put myself in the best mindframe. In moments like that, when my intrinsic motivation takes a break, I go to people like him and one way or another i get my mojo back.
So how does one get here? How do you get to meet so many people, listen to their most intimate stories, help them and create an immense community around your work? Do you need special skills, do you need a good charisma, do you need luck? In all the years he’s done it, Brandon learnt stuff, stuff that he shared in interviews and speeches, such as the two from Creative Live that you can find at the end of this article. Do watch them when you have some time, if not have no fear. I selected some of my favorite advice and ideas from the interviews that that you might find helpful as well.
Don’t just do enough work to feel comfortable. Work hard and show up every day.
Don’t do a comfortable number of photos and call yourself a photographer. Do not use following your dreams as an excuse not to work hard, but because following your dreams correctly is nothing but hard work.
Happiness comes in many forms and you must find your own. Working on finding the best idea or the best strategy to get rich doesn’t always work but the thing we can do is focus on figuring out a way to do what we love, all day long.
Own your time, be in control.
Speaking of control, the only thing you can control is yourself and your reactions to the reality that unfolds before you. For him that meant focusing on how to become a better photographer and storyteller, rather than how his images would be perceived by others.
Gear is not that important. Being a photographer myself I’ve seen lots of people hurrying to get the most expensive cameras and lenses hoping their images will be better or more beautiful. But the thing is, the gear doesn’t make the photography, the art, the story. We do.
Commit to yourself. Focus on your work and commit to it, even if you don’t have the best equipment, even if you don’t feel like it. Commit and do it every day. This is hard work, and I’ve had so many days when I just didn’t want to write or work on my projects, but committing to something and doing it on a daily basis creates a shift of perspective in our mind. I started doing this a year ago with my morning pages. Every day when I wake up I do three pages of longhand writing and I’ve got to a point when it comes naturally and I’m super excited to do them.
You’ll be the first person to get bored of your work, but boredom is a good thing, because it helps you move forward and makes you ask yourself questions that will guide your next steps into becoming better and happier with your own work.
And finally, listen and pay attention to people. I know it’s hard to stop the voices in our head, to stop connecting everything to ourselves, to pause our inner dialogue but it can be done. And once we do that we can finally see the universe hidden in the person in front of us. Only then we learn and connect and enrich our lives.
Once again, I strongly recommend you watch these interviews and take your own good, inspiring mojo out of them. If you liked this article, please share it with someone you think might like it too. Enjoy!
For cool photography articles, insights, classes and other useful resources check out the Creative Live website.