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Brandon Stanton captures audience at UB Distinguished Speaker Series

Humans of New York creator discusses storytelling through his career

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Brandon Stanton flunked out of school, lived in his grandparent’s basement and paid his own way through community college.

Stanton took the stage at Alumni Arena Saturday night as the final speaker for this year’s Distinguished Speaker Series. Stanton, Humans of New York creator, has interviewed and photographed roughly 10,000 random people across the world over the past six years to hear their stories. He then posts the stories to an audience of roughly 25 million people.

Stanton began his speech by jokingly asking what James Franco – the original speaker who cancelled – could be doing that was more important before talking about his own story.

Stanton started as a bond trader in Chicago where he was terrified of losing his job.

“Now I had something to be really proud of. I had this exciting new job in Chicago, so when that sense of prestige was threatened, it was very unsettling... All I thought about was how to keep that job,” Stanton said. “I was obsessed.”

On the day he lost his job, he said it was a surprisingly good day because he took a walk that changed his life. He shifted his focus away from money and asked himself what he truly wanted to do. 

At the time, Stanton’s answer was photography. He started taking photos six years ago and his decision that day was the start of Humans of New York.

“The whole reason that I got a camera… was because I was trying to create this foothold in this mind,” he said. “I was trying to carve out this space in my mind where I had a sense of identity and a sense of purpose outside of my job…”

When Stanton was on a subway in Chicago, he saw two kids who didn’t know each other making the same exact facial expression.

Stanton thought this captured “such a good portrait” of childhood.

“I have to remind myself how terrified I was the first time I took a photo of a person,” Stanton said. “I looked down at the picture in the viewfinder and I remember feeling such a sense of pride because even though I had only been photographing for a few weeks at that point, I had just taken a photograph that someone who might have been photographing for 20 years would not have been able to take... It was because I had gotten over the fear of interacting with another person and because of that I had been able to take a very intimate photo.”

Stanton began photographing everything he thought was important and his friend bought one of his photos for thousands of dollars.

Stanton approaches people and has meaningful conversations with them and asks them questions about their heaviest burdens, obstacles and toughest doubts.

Stanton’s interviews are very “raw” and uncensored. People open up to Stanton about child abuse, drug addiction, guilt, fears and weaknesses.

Stanton believes it is harder to talk about those things with people who are closest to us.

“My theory is the reason we don’t talk about that stuff in our relationships is that relationships are really hard,” Stanton said. “Life itself is really hard... we don’t ask these questions because we don’t want to introduce any more information or painful truths that might upset that equilibrium. Today is never the right day to find out something that might be painful.”

Stanton took the Humans of New York project abroad and traveled to five different countries in Europe to interview refugees at the “peak” of the refugee crisis. He also interviewed inmates from five different federal prisons across the Northeast, patients, doctors and families in the Pediatric Center ward at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Center.

“The kids were amazing but what is equally as amazing to me is there is nothing more wrenching than the suffering of a child,” Stanton said. “It’s the cruelest injustice of nature. There is just nothing that will make you feel like there is no justice, there is no love.”

Stanton is in connection with multiple television networks about a Humans of New York television series. He’s already spent 400 days of filming.

“That’s something I think if people are willing to trust themselves, to not wait for the perfect idea, to start before you’re ready and to trust that if you focus on the work and doing what you love every single day that the idea will become what it needs to be and you will become what you need to be along the way.”

Hannah Stein is the co senior news editor and can be reached at hannah.stein@ubspectrum.com


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