Photo Week 2016 has just kicked off, and in the first hour alone, we have already taken away so much valuable information. Brandon Stanton, founder of Humans of New York, just had his In Focus talk, and it was an amazing way to launch this event.
Here are some of the top things that we learned from his presentation about how he got started, and how anyone can apply his lessons to their own life and work.
It may seem paradoxical, but sometimes bad news can be a blessing in disguise. It gives you the opportunity to think about what you truly want to do with your time. When Brandon lost his job as a bond trader in Chicago, it was his worst fear come true. But once it actually happened, he says he felt a sense of calm. He realized that this was his opportunity to reflect on what he actually wanted to do – and that was to take pictures.
Even when we’re not doing what we want to do, we tell ourselves a narrative about who we are. Even though he was working in finance, Brandon always considered himself a creative. However he wasn’t fulfilling that side of him in his day to day – until he lost his job.
Humans of New York didn’t become a success overnight, you have to start somewhere. The versions of this project that Brandon first started, were primarily him just taking pictures of what he saw in the world. His posts often got zero likes on Facebook, people questioned what he was doing, and it looked like it was going to be a monumental uphill battle to get any real exposure. The point is that even the most successful projects, movements, and campaigns all start at the same place.
It’s so safe to sketch your ideas in a journal. It’s safe to plan. As Brandon put it, “I think what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to plan away risk.” But that perfection will never come. You have to trust that your work will develop and the success will come along the way. You can’t wait for perfect.
For a long time in the initial stages of Humans of New York, Brandon notes that things hadn’t really taken off. Then there was a moment, the photograph of “The Green Lady.” Instead of just taking a picture, he told a story about her in his post, and that post took off. This was a pivotal moment for him, and he realized that he should shift his approach.
Brandon realized that he wasn’t going to become one of the greatest photographers, but maybe what he was the best at, was telling human stories. “Once I figured that out, I pretty much did nothing but post stories.”
The interview process and captioning of these photos has evolved, and all of a sudden he realized that the engagement of his work started to massively expand.
The key here is to figure out what you can do differently, that you can do well. His intent therefore became getting better and better at this interview process. It wasn’t about New York, it wasn’t about Photography, it was about stories.
Especially in the early stages of any project, you have to be ready to accept failure and rejection. When Brandon was just starting out interviewing people on the streets of New York, especially in the beginning, about 9 out of 10 would say no to being interviewed and photographed. This can be seen as a major roadblock, but Brandon was able to power through it and persevere.
Today, about one in three say no, but New York is far and away the most difficult place to connect with people and be able to hear their stories.
What started out as a photography project, has evolved into a storytelling project. They are an exercise in being present, and these aren’t really interviews, they are just conversations. Understanding this shift in approach, dramatically changed how Brandon viewed the ultimate success of what he was doing.
“The best part of this, it’s not the success. It’s the fact that I get to wake up every day and do what I choose.”