Backstage with Humans of New York founder Brandon Stanton: Breaking down stereotypes of those ‘unfairly judged’

Brandon Stanton, acclaimed photographer and founder of Humans of New York (HONY), visited Yale as a Poynter Fellow on Feb. 9.
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Brandon Stanton, founder of Humans of New York. (Photo by Román Castellanos-Monfil)

Brandon Stanton, acclaimed photographer and founder of Humans of New York (HONY), visited Yale as a Poynter Fellow on Feb. 9.

In his address to a crowd of over 1,000 people at Battell Chapel, Stanton explained the origins of HONY and how it has been able to amass a worldwide following. Urging the audience to be “brave” and to follow their passions, he spoke about the power of storytelling and the impact HONY has had on people’s lives all over the world.

(Read more about Stanton’s lecture.)

Before his talk, Stanton shared his thoughts about HONY and its role as a global platform with YaleNews.

Why do you think people open up to you?

Well some people don’t. A lot of it is just approaching a lot of people and finding people who are willing to talk. Beyond that, I think it’s being quiet and having a quiet conversation and not being very forceful. I’ve approached so many people on the streets now, about 10,000 people, that when I get into a conversation with them, I’m able to do it quietly and calmly. And I think that makes the other person calm instead of pushy and aggressive. I think so much of it has to do with your energy and asking the questions from a place where you’re really interested in the person and you care about the answers as opposed to interviewing them from a set list of questions.

Some of the stories people tell you are very personal and heavy. Is it emotionally taxing for you to listen to these stories?

It can be sometimes. The one time I noticed it the most was when I was doing the stories of the refugees. All of those stories were on a different level of tragedy. In New York, occasionally you’ll hear one that really sticks with you for a long time. But the time that was most pronounced was when I was doing the refugee stories, and those could really, really weigh on you.

You’re currently doing a series on inmates after having done the refugee series. How do you choose a series to highlight?

A lot of it is very random and spur of the moment. I think the refugees and the inmates, what they both have in common is that they are populations that are feared, to a large extent. I think one thing Humans of New York can do to help is present a nuanced and complex view of another person as opposed to a caricature of them. I think that has a role in breaking down the fear. Like I said, a lot of it is random and spur of moment but [focusing on] those two populations you mentioned in general, I think, would be because Humans of New York has a role to play when populations are unfairly stereotyped and judged.

One of the roles that Humans of New York has taken on is fundraising and philanthropic work. HONY raised $5 million last year. How do you manage that and how do you foresee that growing?

It’s great; the community that follows Humans of New York is a very good group of people, which is the reason that money was raised. They’re just a group of very giving people. I think it’s something great, and I don’t want to do it too much because I don’t want to overtax my audience’s generosity but whenever I think there’s a good cause that grew organically out of the blog, we’ll try to do it.

Do you have a favorite photo or story?

(laughing) I like them all the same. They’re all tied.

The Poynter Fellowship in Journalism was established by Nelson Poynter, who received his master’s degree in 1927 from Yale. The fellowship brings to campus journalists from a wide variety of media outlets who have made significant contributions to their field. Among recent Poynter fellows are Sheryl WuDunn, Sewell Chan, and Paweł Pieniążek.

To follow Stanton’s work, visit his Facebook page or his website.

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