In Focus: The Makings of a Storyteller: Brandon Stanton
This particular human is, he quit, or actually was fired, I'll let him tell you that story, he was fired from his job as a bond trader and left that world behind to follow his passion and his passion was photography, storytelling and human beings. He moved to New York, lived in a very, very small apartment, I think by himself or with one other person. His mattress barely fit in the closet and he started doing what we all need to do which is going to work, creating the living and lite that we want and Brandon did that as a photographer. He is a New York Times best-selling author. He has the most, I think the largest and most successful Facebook page of any artist with 18 million fans, as if in the photography community, that's basically, it transcends photography and goes far into storytelling. I consider this man a master storyteller. You know his work, he is the Humans of New York, please give me a huge, warm welcome for Mr. Brandon Stanton. (audience cheering and applauding)
Take it away.
Alright. (audience cheering and applauding) Thank you. Thank you guys so much for coming. Chase makes my story a little bit, my place was a little bit bigger than a closet. I've given speeches other places besides the White House and the UN but thank you so much for the nice introduction. So obviously, what I do for those who are familiar with my work, I just stop random people on the streets of New York City and can't even really call it an interview these days because it's evolved more into a therapy session. We just talk about some pretty deep stuff for about 45 minutes. And I've gotten very good through you know, approaching 10,000 random people and interviewing 'em and telling them story. Very good at telling other people's stories, you know, where to begin the story of Humans of New York is sometimes difficult to find a starting point but I normally begin when I was working in Chicago. I was working as a bond trader and things were really not going well. It was becoming apparent that I was going to lose my job and I was just so stressed out about this because you know, I flunked out of college, I had a very roundabout, scenic way through my you know, late teens and 20s. And you know, I finally managed to get everything together and get this job that I was proud of. It was, you know, I was a history major, it just, it's something I fell into. My friend worked in finance, he got me the job and you know, it felt good to go home and you know, have something to tell my family I was doing, you know, besides living in the basement and flunking out of college, you know, and it was a very prestigious job and I was very proud of it. And I was obsessed with the thought of keeping it. You know, all day long, it was all I thought about was markets. And when things started not going well, I obsessed over it even more. You know, I was so terrified of the thought of losing that job. And when it happened, it was strangely a good day. You know, when I lost my job it was strangely a good day. Because it gave me some distance and I looked back at that last two years and I realized that for two years, all of my thoughts and not just my time, and you know, that's when we talk about freedom and doing what you want, you know, I think it's important to think of freedom in two ways, both time and physical freedom, but also mental. Because for two years, I had been putting all my creative energy, all my intelligence, all my thoughts into trying to figure out how to, if you want the technical term, do relative value trading and fixed income securities. Right? And all of my energy and thought as a human were going into trying to figure that out. And then when I lost my job, the day I lost my job, the thing that feared the absolute most, suddenly all of those thoughts I'd been putting into keeping the job, I remember I took a walk and went, wow, I don't have to think about that anymore. I can think about anything that I want to do. You know? I can figure out what I want to do with my time. And on that day, you know, I made a decision that probably everything after Humans of New York was based on. Humans of New York, it's, I hope it's had an impact on people's lives that follow it, the people's stories I've told and the millions of people that follow it. But it actually started and I'm very open, it started with a selfish decision. It started with the decision that I want to spend my time doing exactly what I want to do all day long. Whereas in the last two years, I was spending my time trying to make money and I view myself as a creative person. I think we all have these narratives that we tell ourselves, even if we're not doing what we really want to do, it's we're, we're doing this for now. We're gonna get a buffer zone, we're gonna get some security, then we're gonna pivot and we're gonna do what we really want to do later on when the bills are paid and we have some room and we have some time. And that was the narrative that I was telling myself but two years had gone by. And I had no money and I had nothing to show for it and I realized that no amount of money I could have made during that two years could have possibly bought that time back. So I kinda did a flip in my head and I said, instead of spending my time trying to make money, I'm going for the next foreseeable future of my time, try to make just enough money, just enough money to where I could do what I love to do all day long. It was a very slight but crucial reorientation of my thinking is that I just gotta figure out how to pay the rent, just pay the rent and eat Cheerios and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which I have eaten a ton of, just a ton of, so where I can do what I love to do all day long. And at that time it was photography. And I actually you know, took up photography, I think one of the interesting things about Humans of New York is Humans of New York has existed about six years. I started photographing six years ago, it was almost one in the same, you know? It wasn't, the decision wasn't you know, I want to do what I'm good at all day long, it was, I want to do what I enjoy doing all day long. And even though I had just stared taking photos, that's what I loved to do. You know, I actually started taking photos as a kind of insulation from the stress of my job. Like I was so obsessed with keeping this job, I go, I need to create a space in my mind where I'm not thinking about that for at least a period of every single day and photography was the answer to that. You know, I would go downtown Chicago and I would just photograph everything. I loved it, it was like a treasure hunt to me. It was jut like, it was so tangible, it was interactive. I was actually engaging with the world instead of sitting behind a computer screen. And at first I was just photographing things 'cause I thought they looked cool. Think I was like going for a metaphor of some sort there about the, the, the futility of ambition and the relentless decay of time. (audience laughing) This one's funny. You know, I gotta kind of jump out of the narrative for a second because these were all very early photos. I used to go, that's one great thing about digital, I've never shot film which has its disadvantages but one of the great things about digital is you can take like a thousand photos a day. So a learning curve is steep, you know? I was going downtown Chicago, I would just pick something that I liked and I would like, okay, there's a good picture here, I don't know how to take it so I'm just gonna take of them, you know? And then I'd go home and have these, that's how I taught myself to photograph, like just with that digital camera, machine on fire. I'd photograph everything 50 times. And I would go home and I'd have my Adobe Light Room and I would look at like the 50 photos, oh that one's the best, get rid of the other 49. Oh that one's the best. And through that selection process, I was kind of training my eye and training myself at least what I thought looked best. And so I was taking less and less photos every time I did it. Anyway, so this is one of those very early photos and getting out of the narrative a little bit 'cause this is a hilarious story. So I, fast forward three months when I got fired, I'd been photographing for three months and I needed money to got to New York because I had the idea for Humans of New York and I wanted to pursue it. And you know, there's this kind of image of getting off of the Greyhound Bus with your guitar and like two suitcases, that's kind of untrue 'cause you need the first month's rent and a security deposit, a lot of money. That's a lot of money, I didn't have any and so I made a series of the most awkward phone calls in my life, I called everyone in my phone, I called all my friends who still had jobs, and it's like, hey Joe, yeah, listen, I, I, I know, I know, yeah I lost my job, I lost my job. Hear you're doing well, hear you're doing well. Listen I got these limited edition photographs that you know, I gotta sell to follow my dreams. And so I sold that one to my friend Andy for $300. (audience laughing) So a lot of times, people ask me, what was the, not a lot of times but one time a student newspaper asked me what was the pivotal moment of my life, the most pivotal and whenever somebody asks me questions, I always try to like really think about it 'cause I do that for a living and I thought it would be, you know, rude if I ever turned down a picture from somebody or if I don't put some thought into the questions they ask me. So she asked me pivotal, pivotal moment and with how much Humans of New York has taken over my life, I thought what moment most pushed me down the path of Humans of New York and this was certainly one of 'em. This was the first picture I ever took of a person that involved an interaction with a stranger. I'd photographed some people across the street but this was shortly after I started with Humans, or not Humans of New York, started photographing in general and I was sitting on the train in Chicago and I saw this picture, I saw this moment and those kids didn't know each other, they had never spoken to each other before. But they were both looking up and making the exact same kind of face of wonder. And I remember thinking it was beautiful moment and I'm sitting on the subway with my camera in my hand, just only been photographing for a couple months and I wanted that picture so bad 'cause I was hooked, I was like very passionate about photography, I was obsessed with it for those first two months. And so I remember feeling so scared but wanting that picture so bad 'cause are you even allowed to take pictures of strangers? Like is that legal? I didn't know, you know? I didn't read the photography blogs, like kids? Like uh, you know what I mean? And so I took, I brought up my camera really slowly and you can see that mom makes eye contact with me and I took the photograph. And the reason I call it the most pivotal moment is 'cause I looked at that picture and I remember feeling such a sense of pride because even though I'd only been photographing for about two or three months at that point, I knew that I had just taken a photograph that somebody who might have been photographing for 20 years would not have been able to take. Was it because it was perfectly in focus, the composition, the white balance, the aperture? None of that stuff. It was because I had felt fear, I had been afraid to take this picture and that I have gotten over that fear and taken a picture that somebody with 20 years of technical experience might not have been able to get over. And I looked at that and because of that, it was a somewhat rarer picture than I had seen on the internet. Seen a lot of graffiti, a lot of urban decay, not a lot of these closeup shots, and there's some, there's some great photographers, but it was just rarer, a picture, people. And so I remember looking at that and remember at this time I'd kinda decided I wanted to be a photographer. And I knew I'd started to late to become the best photographer in the world, I was 26 years old at the time. But looking at that photo, I go well if I can teach myself to get over this fear, you know, maybe I can become one of the best photographers in the world at stopping random people and taking their portraits. And yet once I realized that and if you notice a thread through this, if you notice a pattern, in the story of Humans of New York, is once I discovered something that I did a little bit different, once I discovered something that was a little bit unlike what I'd been doing before that I'd seen a lot of, then I focused on that. And once I took that picture of person and I realized it was a little bit unique, that's all I did after that. Oh wait, I gotta show you, so I think this was funny because this is the very first portrait I ever take and if you guys follow Humans of New York, you know all the photos have hundreds of thousands of likes and thousand of comments. First portrait I ever took, zero likes. (audience laughing) One comment from someone on my community college quiz bowl team and it said, racial harmony, I like it. (audience laughing) That was the first Humans of New York portrait, I guess. And so along this way, I started taking photos of people. This was the first idea for Humans of New York and you'll notice that it looks nothing like what Humans of New York is today. This is the Humans of New York, that being completely broke, I never even had been to New York City before the age of 26. I moved to New York two weeks after seeing the city for the first time. Didn't know any body here, didn't have any money. Lived in a sublease in Bedford-Stuyvesant and it wasn't quite a closet like Chase said but it was a mattress on the floor in a room, it was sad. And again, Cheerios, turkey sandwiches, all to photograph all day long 'cause that was the goal is I wanted to figure out a way to make just enough money to photograph all day long. And my idea was, I was gonna move to New York City and I was gonna take 10,000 random photos of people on a street and I was gonna plot them on a map. You know, that was my idea. It was like, you know, I'm just trying to think of how to draw attention to my work. I'm like, oh I can be the guy who does this, you know? And so, I want you to notice that the Humans of New York that I risked everything on. The Humans of New York that I you know, told all my friends and family I was chasing, even though I only had three months experience, moved to New York, I was so poor for so long, looks nothing like the Humans of New York that later became successful, which is such an important distinction, you know? If I had waited for the idea of Humans of New York before doing Humans of New York, I would have never started. Humans of New York today is known for stopping random people on the street and telling their stories. The Humans of New York that I committed my life to looks nothing like that. It was all about photography. And the Humans of New York that grew out of that came from me doing this every day, doing what I loved every single day and making hundreds of small innovations and tinkering in incremental changes along the way to later, to become what was eventually successful. So always think you can't wait for perfect. So many people, I don't know if there's some in the crowd, who can identify with this but you know, it's so safe to sketch your ideas in your journal, you know, your plan for your book? Or you know, talking, thinking about the perfect band or the perfect thing, just because it's so safe to plan. And I think what we're trying to do is we're trying to plan away risk. You know, I think we're in the comfort of our rooms, with our journals, we're trying to make a plan that is so perfect that our friends are gonna tell us it's a good idea. Nobody told me Humans of New York was a good idea, (audience laughing) by the way. Oh, you're gonna take pictures and people and put it on Facebook where there's nothing but pictures of people, go for it, buddy. Like go for it, you know? And it's just like, I think everybody is trying to plan so they have an idea that is so perfect, it cannot fail and that will never come. That perfect moment will never come so you have to start before you're ready and sort of have to trust that not only you but your work will become what it needs to be along the way. So these are the photos that I was taking early on. Look at the faces on those two. (audience laughing) I know. Look at these moments. And this was probably the second most pivotal moment. I had been in New York for several months, you know, I maybe had 1,000 Facebook fans, probably half of them were family and friends and people I sent direct messages to, begging to follow my page. Lot of that involved in success, by the way. It's just like faking it, just asking people to follow your stuff, even if they don't care about it. Lot of that in the beginning. And so I'd been doing this, I'd taken thousands of portraits at this time, things hadn't really taken off yet. And then I photographed this woman one day and I remember thinking it wasn't a great picture, like especially compared to the other ones that I'd just shown you. You know, I wasn't too happy with it. I didn't quite get the picture that I wanted and I was almost not going to post it on my page but I remember that that woman had said something to me. She said, I used to be a different color every single day but one day I was green and that was a great day so I've been green for 15 years. She said that to me. And I remember, I wasn't going to post it on the blog and then I got sick the next day and I didn't have anything to post. So I said, I got that anh, kind a crappy photo of the green woman, but she told me, she gave me that quote. And I was like, I'm just gonna throw that quote on top of the photo and throw it up. And it was the most engaged-with photo I had ever put up, like 37 likes or something like that back then. (audience laughing) And you know, it kinda, it made sense though you know, when I thought about it. Because remember on the subway, when I realized that the thing that I might be able to do differently was probably not become the best photographer but I did have a chance by doing it thousands of times to maybe becoming one of the best people at stopping a random person on the street and making them feel comfortable enough to let me take their photograph. And at this time, I'd done that thousands of times and I had gotten very good at it. And if that's what I did differently, you know, didn't it only make sense to learn about this person? Since I'd already gotten over that fear, I'd done it so much where I wasn't afraid to talk to anybody. You know, wouldn't it make sense to find out who these people are and share their stories with other people who might be curious but hadn't gotten over that fear, you know? And again, just like beforehand, you know when I first got that picture of the portrait because I overcame the fear and I took nothing but pictures of people. Once I figured that out, I pretty much did nothing but post stories. And you know, the interview process has evolved itself, you know, it started out, you know at the very beginning where it, like the green lady, she just said that to me just off the cuff and it started out where I would just add little quotes that they happened to say to me. Then I started asking questions, you know? Then I started asking follow-up questions and the interviews grew longer and the captions grew longer. And so now, when I'm stopping somebody on the street, again, you know when it started, I moved to Humans of New York to just take pictures of people, it was (snapping) 30 second interactions. Now when I'm stopping people on the street, I'm spending 45 minutes with them, sometimes an hour and a half, which is difficult to do in New York, it's you know, it's made my job harder. I've got to find people who have an hour and a half of time, which can be difficult. And you know, and Humans of New York kind of congealed into what it is today. You know, and what I think it will always remain and what I will always focus on. That you know, Humans of New York, again, it's just like it was realization of what I had figured out that I could do differently than everybody else and that I could possibly offer the world and through doing it thousands of times, again based on just the fact that I loved doing it, I had gotten to be where I could create this bubble with a stranger on the street that within three minutes of meeting them, you know we'd be talking about things that they might not be talking about with people who are closest to them. Their greatest guilts, their greatest struggles, the saddest moments of their life, they're HIV, you know? And so once I learned that, the Humans of New York and it remains my attempt to become as good as possible at doing that, of creating that bubble on the street with a stranger and telling their stories. And once I realized it was about that bubble, I realized it wasn't about New York, it wasn't about pictures, it wasn't about photography and it wasn't about New York either. It was about that bubble, that's what I become, that's what I become good at is creating that bubble. And I could take that bubble anywhere. You know, this is from a series on pediatric cancer. So one of the neatest things I've ever done, the saddest things I've ever done, the most powerful things I've ever done is have these random interviews on the pediatric cancer ward of Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital for two weeks. With the oncologists, the surgeons, the family, the patients, everybody who was peripherally involved with pediatric cancer. And the reason that that interested me so much 'cause to me, pediatric cancer is like the greatest injustice of nature that there is. It's the thing that, I mean, when you face it head on, like how do you come out with an idea of a benevolent universe or a benevolent world or justice, you know, when your child has cancer? And I really wanted to meet the people who were fighting this and were seeking to heal this and were seeking to cure this. And you know, it was one of the best series I ever did. The audience raised almost four million dollars while we did the series. I was invited to go to five different prisons where I did the exact same interview that I just randomly, you know, developed through stopping people on the streets of New York City to interview inmates which was such a special experience, you know, to give their stories the exact same treatment as anybody on the street. I've been to about 10 different countries interviewing refugees. These refugees were in Iraq. That's Pakistan. Spent two weeks there which is also very proud of. That's Jerusalem, India, Uganda. I was able to interview President Obama and Hillary Clinton recently. You know, all again, just the exact same style. Like when I interviewed both of them, you know, I did it the exact same way on the street. I didn't think of any questions, didn't do any research. You know, I just kind of came in and the way I normally interview people on the street is you know, I have like two or three questions I start out with, normally. What is your biggest struggle right now? That's a big one. I find that you know, that is kind of an invitation for people to just unload what they've been carrying around that day or that week or that month. So a lot of times that jumps right into the conversation. With Hillary, it was how do you differ from people's perceptions of you? But normally I only walk in or I approach somebody with like two or three questions. And then after that, it's all an exercise in being very present. You know, I had somebody, it was an inadvertent compliment but it was a big complement. A student followed me around one day and he said, you know, I used to think that you were somebody who interviewed somebody and took their photo. Now I realize you're somebody who just goes around and talks with people and then takes their photo which was a very important distinction because you know, the interviews, I don't, I'm never thinking about the next question, I'm just listening very intently to the person. And almost all of my questions are based on something they had just said. You know? I'll ask 'em a question, they'll say something. I will ask a question based on what they just said. They'll say something else. And so you know, they're all about being present and being very conversational. And which is the exact same process you know, I did with the refugees, with inmates and even with President Obama. And you know, I put this picture after that one because obviously you know, that was amazing. The ride has been amazing these last six years. You know, bigger than I ever could have imagined. To give you an idea of like the kind of success I was going for, like I early on, you know with Humans of New York, I was starting to get like 10 new Facebook fans a day that I didn't know. And I remember just doing the math in my head and thinking, in three years, if I work every single day, I could have 10,000 Facebook fans. And to me, that represented success. Like maybe I could sell photographs. You know, maybe I could pay my rent with this. Like 10,000 people would be following it. Like that was my idea of what success meant when I started and now it's become two number one New York Times best-selling books. I've been able to go to 20 different countries with the United Nations. I've interviewed the president in the Oval Office, all these amazing things have happened. And you know, when I tell this story, you know, I want to, I don't want to be one of those guys who's like, oh just do what I do and all these amazing things will happen to you too because a lot of these, I was in the right place at the right time. My idea happened to coincide with social media, Facebook, pages, things like a lot of them, lucky things happened to me. But when I get asked now, what's the best thing about doing Humans of New York, I don't talk about any of that stuff. The best thing was and remains the fact that I get to wake up every single day and choose what work I want to do and that's important. It's not that I get to wake up and choose not to work because I think that's a lot of people's ideas of following their dreams. Like, oh, I'm just gonna get to the point where I drink beers with my friends all day. Like how am I gonna do that? Become famous. You know what I mean? And when in reality, following your dreams directly is nothing but hard work. So it's not the ability to not work that is the ultimate goal, it's the ability to choose your work. And with everything that's happened, the best part of Humans of New York remains the fact that I get to wake up every morning and do exactly what I want to do that day which remains telling people's stories which is still as exciting it's always been. And so what I say is that was my original goal. And while I can't promise this amazing outsized success, outsized success that Humans of New York has happened to bring upon me, you know that was never the goal and I am confident if that somebody makes that commitment to their self, that they are going to do whatever it takes to make just enough money to where they can control their time and do what they want to do all day long and choose their work, that is something that I think everyone can achieve in some way or another. So, thank you. (audience applauding)
You're not going anywhere. I asked the producers if we could have five to eight minutes to ask Brandon some questions. Again, to have a guy of his stature and the fact that he left what everybody else thought that was the right thing for him, to pursue his passion, to me that's every bit as important as the success that he's had and so let's take this opportunity to ask him some questions. Already people like (laughing). Okay, go ahead, raise your hands. I'll get right to you. Yes sir, you were first and highest of the hand, nice job, yeah stand up.
Hi, hi, I'm Rich. I'm a portrait photographer and I do portraits that you know, last two or three hours and I have my blog and I tell a little story about the client you know, but I always struggle with what to put in that blog. Like should I put the perspective of what resonates most with the clients of the story or sometimes what's really personal is hard to put. Like if you get, you know, some deep personal, hurtful information form that individual, sometimes I feel like I shouldn't put that up there.
How do you decide that?
Well I mean I don't make that distinction. I, you know, first of all, the process, I'm very up front at the beginning of what the process is. You know, obviously this is a very widely read blog, you know? So I always say, anything you don't want to answer, you don't have to answer. Anything you can't think of the answer to, that's fine. So I give them that agency at the beginning of anything you don't want to talk about, you don't have to talk about. Another additional level of agency that I give people, is that if they do start talking about something very personal, I also give them the agency of telling the story anonymously so you sometimes see hands and you'll sometimes see feet. I've also added to that again, that if they're talking about somebody else who's not present, in a personal way, then I will usually insist on anonymity then too to protect that person. But your worry, as I've learned, is probably not as, it's probably more of a Bogeyman than you realize because when I do give people that agency, when I say, 20 million people are gonna read this, we don't have to talk about anything you don't want to talk about. There are, it's hardly ever, hardly ever, like less than 0.5% of the time when I ask somebody any question where they say I don't want to talk about that. The time that that agency is actually taken is almost never. In addition to that, I say if you want to send me an email, if it gets too much, I will take it down. Only happened six or seven times in six years. So it's you know, that has been one of the main, amazing, educational experiences for me of doing Humans of New York is that I went from being terrified of what a stranger would think if I snapped their photo to now walking up to somebody like with the expectation that in a few minutes, you know, we'll be talking about things that they might not have shared with anybody. And I think you know, through I think there's two threads running through people's minds when they're sharing something that makes them vulnerable. One is the fear of being exposed and the fear of being vulnerable and the other is the appreciation of being heard and the validation of being heard. And I find that this always outruns this. Yeah.
I have a two part question.
First, do you record all of this and do you go back and figure out what it was?
How do you remember it? And the second time is, after you have talked with them a lot, the time then of bringing out your camera and photographing them, what is that transition like?
Does that makes sense?
Oh yeah, both make sense. The, I take notes, I take notes on my phone and I don't take notes through the entire process. One benefit of having done this 10,000 times, not only done you know, thousands of interviews but taken those interviews and synthesized them into thousands of stories that now I know in the interview what the caption's going to be. I've just done it so many times that I know when I'm not hearing it and I know when I'm hearing it. And so, and what do I look for and this could help you as well, is and it fits into the theme of this. It's like, just as every time I realize when I was doing something different, I focused on that and just did that. It's kind of the same process that goes on in the interview. I've interviewed thousands of people. It's so hard for me to hear something new. I can almost never hear a new opinion or a new philosophy, almost always that difference and that uniqueness has to come out of the story because all of our stories are so much more unique than our philosophies and our opinions. And so I will ask questions and kind of you know, out of my interest and once I start hearing something new, once I hear a different angle, then I pull out my phone and start taking notes. So I don't take notes during the who interview, I take notes during the part of the interview that I know will later be turned into the caption. Photos. There is no transition, I do it while it's happening. Yeah. And that's, and I tell them that. I go, you know, I might photograph, that's part of my spiel in the beginning. Anything you don't want to answer you don't have to answer, if you can't think of an answer, that's fine. I might photograph you while you're talking and while you're thinking which tends to be the best photos. Can be awkward, that is an imperfect part of my process, it's not like film where it keeps rolling. We'll be having like a moment and somebody will be expressing an emotion that I want to capture and so they'll be sharing something, it's like (imitating camera shutter), you know, it's, there's no way around it. So it can get awkward but that's how I do it, yeah.
Hi, I'm Omar.
Thanks for coming. I grew up on the streets of New York and if you came up to me, I'd be like what are you selling, get away from me. It's just how, when we walk the street, you know. So how did that evolve, like that challenge of and how much--
Well, I mean--
What percent of rejection did you initially get?
I think you know, the what you just identified is the reason that you know Humans of New York is hard to replicate. 'Cause it's hard (laughing) to go out there and deal with that energy, you know, all day long. You know, it's especially in the beginning. Now Humans of New York, I'd say half the people I stop in New York have at least heard of the blog but you know, before hand it was you know, I'm just a guy with a photo project, you know, can I take your photo? And rejection was a huge part of it. You know, when I was first, you know, beginning, maybe one out of every three people would say yes and as you can imagine, in New York, there's a wide variety of nos you get, you know? Every yes is the same but every no is different. (audience laughing) And so you know, just through doing it, you know, enough times and there's ways and it's understandable, it's like when somebody comes up and it happens to me too, when somebody walks up to you in New York and tries to stop you, I don't care how nice they are, it's just like full defense mode 'cause it's just like they're gonna ask me for my credit card number, they're gonna ask for something. And normally the nicer they are upfront, the bigger the ask at the back. Hey yeah, I just want to know how to get to Penn Station. Great shoes, listen, you know what I mean? It's like, and so you know, yeah, it's very hard to overcome and there's no place harder than New York City. I've been to Iran, I've been to Pakistan, I've been to Iraq, I've been to Uganda, or not Uganda, but the Democratic Republic of Congo, you know, South Sudan, places where you know, the ideas of America might not be the friendliest, no where close to how many times I get rejected in New York. In Iran, I think I asked you know 150 people, maybe four or five said no. Yeah, so New York, it's about one out of every three say no. Some days it seems like nine out of every 10 people say no. Yeah. I remember with my first, my book first became a number one New York Times best-seller and I was just like walking on air. Like I was just like I felt like the coolest person in the universe. And then I remember I went out on the street the next day and just like 10 people, just like, stiff armed me in a row. (audience laughing) So yeah, it can be a humbling experience on some days.
I'm Othia and I worked in the criminal justice field for two years and I just recently quit but I remember when I was following the series of stories in the correction facilities and I think one of the questions that really got to me was like, you know what made him go into the correction facilities? So I would like to know the answer to that.
You know, very early on, I would have people come up to me and say, this is very early, like oh my mom didn't want me to move to New York so I showed her your blog and then she was less frightened. Or, I didn't want to move to this neighborhood and then I saw portraits and stories on your blog from that neighborhood and I realized it was no big deal. And so early on, based on the feedback I was getting, I realized that one of the places that this kind of work has the biggest impact is among populations that are feared. And that's why, you know, some of the work I am proudest of is Pakistan, Iran, places where there's nothing but negative narratives coming out in our media about it and therefore you know, our perceptions of it are very skewed. I would say the criminal population is one of those populations where you know, I think people get lumped together, they're criminals, they broke the law and so you know, I think it was interesting to me to go in there and apply, and I always say, I don't give a positive image. Sometimes people from Pakistan will come up to me and they'll say, thank you so much for showing a positive image of our country and I always kind of correct them. And I say, no, what I did was gave a random image. I stopped random people. I didn't look for the drone strikes, didn't look for the militants, didn't look for the extremists for those stories to tell. I just stopped random people and told those stories and therefore it comes off as positive in comparison to the extreme narratives that are coming out. And I just wanted to apply that, you know, that exact same formula to a population of inmates, which I did, which I think revealed a lot of nuance, a lot of complexity behind what eventually led to their crimes which hopefully, you know, made people think you know, a little bit more deeper about what's right, what's wrong and what's good and what's evil. Yeah.