A picture swiped across the screen. It showed a man dressed in a blue, short-sleeved, button-down shirt sitting in a metal chair, a sullen expression draped across his face. A dog lay beside him matching his glum look.
Then another photo flashed across. One of a shirtless Asian child with a foot resting on what looks to be his father’s bare chest as if he was stomping down on him. A grin stretched across of their jubilant faces.
Brandon Stanton, creator of the award-winning photo blog “Humans of New York,” had never met these people prior to snapping these pictures, didn’t pose them or create a fabricated scene.
The subjects were randomly selected as Stanton roamed around various places. He simply captured the moment.
“I knew I would never be the best photographer in the world. I didn’t pick up a camera until age 26,” Stanton said to capacity crowd inside the Marshall Student Center ballroom as part of the University Lecture Series on Tuesday night. “But I thought I had a chance at being the best in the world at stopping strangers on the street and taking their photos.”
Another photo emerged on the large projection screen that hung behind Stanton; it was probably the most significant photograph he’d taken. It pictured two mothers and their sons – one black, one Asian – standing on a subway. The two boys were looking up at something in unison, which caught Stanton’s eye.
“These kids didn’t know each other,” Stanton said. “They had never met, never spoken to one another. But they were making the exact same face. I thought it was such a beautiful little moment and I wanted to capture it.”
This was the inception of the blog that has now blossomed from a following of just “socially obligated” family members and friends into nearly half million and counting. But it started out a much different sketch than what is seen today.
In Stanton’s original fantasy, he would take pictures of 10,000 different people he sees and plot the pictures on a map claiming, “Somehow it would be interesting.” But this idea gave little to no context into who these people were. Stanton gradually began to break down a social barrier that began to separate him from typical photographers: talking and interacting with complete strangers.
“I looked down at the screen after I took that photo and I remember feeling such a sense of pride,” said Stanton, who had only been taking pictures for a month at the time. “I had just taken a photo that somebody that had been photographing for 20 years might not have been able to get because it involved getting over that fear of approaching a stranger.
“I started to see that even though I didn’t have that much experience with photography, there was a possibility that I could create something unique and something that’s interesting to people and something that stands out. If I could get over that fear.”
Stanton was new to photography. After flunking out of the University of Georgia and returning to a community college some time later, Stanton took a job trading bonds in Chicago. He became obsessed with the job, constantly thinking about market shifts.
It wasn’t until he was fired that he was able to reassess his cluttered outlook and refocus his energy.
“I decided that I was going to spend the foreseeable future making just enough money to where I control my time,” Stanton said. “Where I can spend my time in the way I would spend it if money wasn’t an issue.”
With that he moved to New York with little to no money – even conning his friends into buying prints off of him, claiming they were “limited edition” in order to pay his first month’s rent. He was ready to set his vision into motion.
“All of the money I raised was from selling photos to my friends that used to be traders,” Stanton joked, drawing a roar of laughter from the crowd. “I then subleased with three people I didn’t know, that I found on craigslist in a really bad neighborhood. But what was my goal? The goal was to just control my time, it had nothing to do with money.”
Stanton wasn’t as concerned with the people that he was photographing or the people who followed him. Instead, he was insistent on improving his craft each time he took a snapshot of someone’s life.
“I just went out and photographed every day and tried to make my work a little bit better, a little better, a little bit better and never focused on the audience. I only focused on the work.”
One final picture stretched across the screen, pulled from the Humans of New York Facebook page. It was dated four years and 18 days after Stanton’s picture of the two boys and their mothers, the beginning of the blog.
The picture was of President of the United States Barack Obama during an interview with Stanton inside the Oval Office. Stanton switched back and forth between the two pictures. One showed his humble beginnings, the other his crowning achievement validating his four years of work.
Stanton’s unique perspective has sent him to 20 countries across the world, taken him to big cities and prisons, brought him fame and fortune, but most important to him, the opportunity to give a glimpse into over 10,000 people’s lives through a captured moment in time.
All because he demanded to be different.
“It’s almost more important – with how saturated the world is and how much is out there – to be different. It’s more important than anything to be different.”