Seven years ago, Brandon Stanton took his first photograph of two children and their mothers on a subway in New York City.
“I snap the photo. I remember looking at the viewfinder and I remember such sense of pride and sense of accomplishment," Stanton said. It was "because I had gotten over this fear of interacting with a stranger."
The picture had zero likes and only one comment. Since its humble beginning, his Humans of New York project has amassed 20 million followers on social media and he is author of two books that have been on the New York Times best-sellers lists.
Stanton, the photojournalist who founded the blog Humans of New York at humansofnewyork.com, was the keynote speaker at RootsTech 2018 on Thursday morning at the Salt Palace Convention Center. As he went through some of his most moving photos, he shared about the importance of following your passion and power of listening.
Humans of New York, which began as an idea for a map or “type of photographic census” of pictures of 10,000 people on the streets of the Big Apple, has evolved into a storytelling blog of photos with captions and quotes from hour-long in-depth interviews of “intimate confessions” and never-before-told personal stories of everyday people.
“Notice that the idea that I risked everything for, the idea I committed myself 100 percent to, looks nothing like the idea that later became successful,” Stanton told RootsTech participants. “If you want to do something big, if you want to make a big change in your life, you cannot wait for the perfect idea because that will never come.”
The idea for the blog came during a time in Stanton’s life when he felt he lacked a sense of direction. After flunking out of college, he felt a desire to do “something meaningful … with a bigger purpose.” He decided to return to the University of Georgia and soon graduated with a degree in history.
Stanton was working in finance as a bond trader in Chicago in 2010 when, out of fear of losing his job and “the sense I was doing something people respected,” he became “obsessed with it,” he said. The job took over two years of his life, valuable time he realized he will never get back.
The day he was fired from his job Stanton described as “a surprising good day.” It was the day he realized he had been living his life to seek the approval of others and decided to do what he loves most: photography. Stanton packed everything into two suitcases and moved to New York City, a place he had never been, with a camera in hand he hardly knew how to use. Humans of New York was born.
Now, seven years later, Stanton has traveled all over the world, stopping random people on the streets of cities from Brazil to Pakistan to India to ask hard questions and find out who they really are. He's learned, “sometimes the only thing people have to offer is their story” and “the main things people are struggling with are the same things we’re all struggling with.”
Stanton told RootsTech attendees the one thing he hopes they take away from his experiences is the value of listening to each other.
“When I stop and ask these people about their lives, I’m the only person that asked,” he said. “Overcoming that thread of feeling so vulnerable and so weird about talking to a stranger about this stuff is just appreciation for being heard.”
Stanton said his favorite part about his job is getting to wake up every morning and choose the work he is going to do that day. “Following your dreams correctly is nothing but hard work,” he said.
“If they’re willing to not wait for the perfect idea, if they’re willing to start pursuing the work that they love full time and trust that the idea is going to become what it needs to be and that you are going to become what you need to be along the way, I think that’s a place everyone can get to,” he said.