In 2010, Brandon Stanton lost his job as a bond trader in Chicago. Thank goodness.
If Stanton had stayed in Chicago, if he hadn’t picked up his camera and moved to the Big Apple, if he hadn’t set out to snap pictures of 10,000 New Yorkers, if he hadn’t started chatting with his subjects, if he hadn’t decided to post snippets of his conversations online, then my favorite thing on the Internet wouldn’t exist.
Brandon Stanton is the mind, heart, and camera behind the ridiculously popular blog, “Humans of New York,” or HONY. He wanders the streets of New York City, taking photographs of strangers and finding out what makes them tick. He talks to homeless men, six-year-old girls, guys in wigs, teenagers on dates. The conversations range from goofy to philosophical to excruciatingly raw:
I’m single, unemployed, and late middle-aged. But I don’t really get sad. I just don’t think sadness is in my brain chemistry.
I’ve been working on my doctorate for ten years now.
I tried drinking some Drano in January because I didn’t think anyone would care. I was right about nobody caring, but I threw up the Drano before it could work.
I met my wife on a flight from Chicago to Houston.
I stay out until midnight every night because I don’t want to go home.
Stanton’s photographs and accompanying stories appear frequently in my Facebook news feed, as they do for his 16 million (a number I still struggle to wrap my head around) other followers. In the five years since this project began, Stanton has compiled two bestselling books and taken photographic journeys to over a dozen countries, including Pakistan, Iraq, and Jordan. Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton have both left comments on his posts.
Stanton has a massive platform, and he stands on it with poise and humility. In an online world that screeches with hostility and self-aggrandizement, Stanton is the most elusive and vital kind of storyteller: the type who will look someone else in the eye and say, “Your story matters to me. You matter to me. Tell me about yourself.”
The stories he tells—the stories his subjects tell—are deeply, viscerally real. They don’t all have happy endings. They’re not all told with a smile. We see the hands that held the Drano bottle, the eyes that watched a marriage corrode.
Silly or tragic, HONY stories pulse with truth, the kind of truth that stretches our stiffening muscles of empathy and compassion. Stanton doesn’t walk the city to find people the world has deemed important. Stanton photographs ordinary, beautiful, flawed human beings who are important because they’re here, because they exist. Their eyes draw us in and invite us to find meaning in their joys and regrets.
And we do. Time and time again, the HONY army has leapt to its feet to celebrate, ponder, and mourn with utter strangers. Every Facebook post swells with thousands of comments expressing solidarity, love, compassion, and hope. I’ve been there, they say. You’re beautiful, you’re loved, you’re cherished.
Surprisingly often, that solidarity morphs into real-world action. This November, Stanton photographed a down-and-out Cameroonian fashion designer, whose website promptly crashed under the weight of supportive messages and orders (a phenomenon one commenter called the “HONY hug of death”). Stanton chatted with a 10-year-old aspiring reporter who dreamed of interviewing the Director of NASA. Ten days later, he did.
Sometimes, a story of plight will strike Stanton particularly hard, and he’ll launch a crowdfunding campaign to try to help. HONY readers raised $318,000 for victims of Hurricane Sandy, $83,000 to help a news cameraman and his family adopt an Ethiopian orphan, $1.4 million for programs and scholarships at a high-risk Brooklyn school.
The HONY engine of compassion crosses borders effortlessly. Stanton visited Pakistan in 2014, and his readers bought a tractor for an injured farmer, paid the medical bills of a young mother with Hepatitis C, and raised nearly $2 million for a crusade to free workers from predatory bonded labor practices. Stanton’s recent series of profiles on Syrian refugees has put human faces on a group too easily demonized or dismissed.
Of course, underpinning these tremendous outpourings of support is the knowledge that for every Pakistani farmer and struggling school the HONY army swoops in to save, there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of similar stories that won’t be heard. Not as long, at least, as Stanton is the only one willing to tell them.
Geneva Langeland (’13) survived graduate school with minimal blood loss, escaping with her ms in environmental policy and communication. She now works in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the communications editor at Michigan Sea Grant. There, she gets to hang out with educators, researchers, and communicators who love the Great Lakes as much as she does.