Interview: Brandon Stanton, Author Of 'Humans of New York: Stories' Brandon Stanton left a life in finance for an entirely different quest: to snap the portraits of 10,000 people. The project eventually became Humans of New York, a blog and the basis for two books.
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In 10,000 Snaps Of The Shutter, A 'Photographic Census' Of A City

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In 10,000 Snaps Of The Shutter, A 'Photographic Census' Of A City

In 10,000 Snaps Of The Shutter, A 'Photographic Census' Of A City

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What do you think would happen if I stopped you on the street, asked to take your picture and asked you to tell me your story? What do you think you'd do? For the past five years, photographer Brandon Stanton has been doing exactly that, on the streets of New York, no less. And thousands of people have said yes to Stanton - not only collecting their stories and images, but sharing them on his blog Humans Of New York. That blog and other associated projects have become an international sensation followed by millions of people. His first book based on the project was a hit, and now Stanton is back with a new collection called "Humans of New York: Stories." And Brandon Stanton joins us now from our studios in - where else? - New York. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

BRANDON STANTON: Thank you. Thank you very much.

MARTIN: I like the story of how you got started. Will you briefly tell it again? I know you've told it to other people, but just in case people haven't heard it.

STANTON: Right. Well, the short version is I was working in finance in Chicago, and I lost my job. And so I just kind of made the decision that I was going to spend the next, you know, period of my life thinking not about money but about how I spent my time. And I loved taking photographs at the time. And I struck upon this kind of crazy idea that I was going to go to New York and stop 10,000 people on the streets and take their portrait and create kind of a photographic census of the city.

MARTIN: How did you actually stop people? I mean, I say that as a person who does...

STANTON: Right, right.

MARTIN: ...Stop random people. But how did you do it?

STANTON: I mean, I was terrified at first. And I'm so comfortable with it now because I've done it 10,000 times that I have to remind myself how scared I was when I first started. But over time, you know, I realized it's not really about what you say when you approach a stranger, it's all about the energy that you're giving off. And, you know, the key is to be comfortable with the fact that some people are going to turn you down no matter what. It's the rejection that is hard. It's not the interviewing that's hard. It's not the photography that's hard. It's, you know, approaching people all day long and having a good portion of those people reject you and some of them be rude. And that is why the work can be psychologically draining, but I'm used to it now.

MARTIN: The range of people is extraordinary. There's a family celebrating a newborn, a man convicted of murder, a former priest - a former clergyman who's lost his faith - a young woman who uses a wheelchair who just got her acceptance letter to the London School of Economics, lots of kids. How do you go about deciding who you want to talk to? And then, of course, you know I'm going to ask you to pick me a couple favorites.

STANTON: Right. Well, randomness is the key word there. I'm normally just looking for somebody that looks like they're approachable. The interviews have gotten much longer with Humans Of New York. When I was first starting, I was just photographing people. And then I went to just kind of including a quote or two. Now when I'm approaching somebody on the street, I'm spending about 30 to 45 minutes with them often. And so when I'm looking for somebody on the street, I'm looking for someone who's not with friends, someone who's not in a hurry. A lot of times, it's somebody sitting on a bench or leaning against a wall. And other than that there is no other criteria. It's completely random. And I think that that is what leads to the diversity of stories.

MARTIN: Pick a couple. Pick one or two.

STANTON: There was an Egyptian man who was famous for having climbed the tallest mountain on every continent. And he told me the story of how he met this woman who he travelled with and eventually got married with and fell in love and then they had their first child. And she passed away while giving birth to their first child. And the story he told me, you know, was just very, very tragic and superimposed over these exploits that this man had gone through so many physical exploits that he was known for. And then his greatest challenge was something that was much more emotional. And I've become very good friends with this man, and it was one of the most powerful stories that I ever told on Humans Of New York.

MARTIN: Are all the stories sad, or are most of them sad?

STANTON: Oh, no. Well, like you said, there's tons of kids in there and there's tons of happy stories. But, you know, for me, it's - I think, why did the sad stories kind of stand out to me? I think it's because so much of the storytelling on social media is self-directed and it serves to highlight all the good stuff that's going on in our lives - look at my marriage, look at my car, look at my house, look at my kids, look at my job. And it's all so self-promotional and happy. And, you know, I think what Humans Of New York does is highlights maybe the other tones of our lives that people aren't so willing to express or tragedy that they might not have told anybody else. And then there's somebody in my audience that's reading that and says, you know what? I'm going through that exact same thing, and I was afraid to talk about it also. And then those are the stories that I feel proudest about.

MARTIN: Why do you think people want to talk to you?

STANTON: You know, I think that if you ask with a, you know, kind of genuine interest and a genuine, you know, curiosity and a level of compassion, there's very little that somebody won't share with you. You know, I think that even though some of the things on Humans Of New York are kind of very personal and very revealing, I think the discomfort with sharing that tends to be overwritten by the appreciation of being able to distill the experience of your life into a story and share it with other people.

MARTIN: Brandon Stanton's latest book is "Humans Of New York: Stories," and it is available now. Brandon, thanks so much for speaking with us.

STANTON: Thank you so much.

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