Stanton might ask about the people’s jobs. Alternatively, “How are you today?” Instead, he asks questions like: What are you most fearful of right now? What has brought you the most joy? What period of your life has been the most depressing? Blogger from “Humans of New York” Shares Interviewing and Listening Tips for D&I Conference
‘Humans of New York’ Creator Brandon Stanton Shares the Secrets of His Craft | FULL INTERVIEW
For Jason Vollbrecht, benefits leader at Great River Energy in Maple Grove, Minn., Stantons message for HR professionals was about “the importance of being an active listener, that everyone has a story, and the importance of sharing your story and learning from one another and hopefully dispelling any stereotypes.” He added, “I think thats really important.”
Stanton: You know whats interesting, though? I think it hit the zeitgeist more in the [President Barack] Obama era than in the [President Donald] Trump era, because everybody whos really [been following] this project is so obsessed with Trump right now … and theyre following him all day long. Its not a very good time for human-interest content, in my opinion, because Trumps taking up all the oxygen in the minds of progressive liberal people.
Stanton: Its cut back on the space in my head to sculpt and direct my artistic vision. But its added a lot, too.I used to take these four-mile walks every single night [to think about] what Im going to do next, and thats not really happening anymore. I have time to do what needs to be done.
Stanton: There are people who arent comfortable with sharing, and you dont see those stories on the blog. [But] I think for a lot of people there is something “honoring” about being interviewed. You feel like you have something to say, that theres something interesting about your experience. A lot of times people are annoyed when theyre first stopped, and then they get into it. People like to feel like they have a story worth telling. When you have someone whos superinterested in your story … it makes you feel important.
Exclusive Interview with ‘Humans of New York’ Creator Brandon Stanton
Its about re-constructing [the interview] in a way that maintains the persons voice and intent, while the photograph maintains their emotion. I like to capture people while theyre talking because I want the audience to be there and feel what its like to sit and listen to that person. The better Ive gotten over the years, the more impactful the work has become.
On a personal note, Ive been eager to interview Stanton for years. We are both alumni of the University of Georgia, which is where I first heard his story. In 2012, I was working at the student newspaper, The Red & Black, when a colleague profiled Stanton about Humans of New York.
I think confronting a person on a very deep level and pushing them on things that other people dont push them on gives them the respect of listening very intently. Challenging somebody is a form of respect because it shows that youre listening so closely that youre noticing inconsistencies in their story.
STANTON: People often ask me, “How do you listen to these sad stories over and over again without being affected?” Ive done series in pediatric cancer wards and Ive done series where I spent weeks with refugees, but I think theres something about a really good interview thats about the exchange. Its not just directed one-way, where youre asking questions and youre getting answers.
Im excited to share with you my conversation with Stanton below. He doesnt typically do media interviews, so this is one of the most comprehensive Q&As hes done in recent years. It was an amazing conversation about his process, how he conducts his interviews, and why people are willing to trust complete strangers with their most intimate secrets.
The Power of Listening: an Interview with Humans of New York’s Brandon Stanton — Pictures and Stories
Having been fans of Humans of New York nearly since its beginning, we were excited to have the opportunity to interview the celebrated photojournalist prior to his coming to Salt Lake City as the keynote speaker for the opening session of next week’s RootsTech family history conference. Since Brandon started his Facebook page in 2010, he has amassed 20 million social media followers and published two New York Times best selling books: Humans of New York and Humans of New York: Stories. He now travels around the world listening to people and capturing their stories. We caught up with him by telephone while he was in the Philippines.
“I realized that the picture was kind of an excuse to get into an interaction with these people and that the conversations … were more interesting and meaningful than the photos themselves, both to me, the person I was interviewing, and the audience. … The heart of it is not the photo, it’s not the story, it’s not any of the editorial. The real heart of the work, and I think the power of it, is in that interaction on the street.
“In our homes and relationships there is a lot of small talk. We are barely keeping our heads above water. How are we going to pay the bills, how are we going to get the kids to school? We are so pressed with so many responsibilities that we are barely functioning.”
The theme for this year’s RootsTech conference is “Connect and Belong.” What can we, in our own families and neighborhoods, learn from Brandon’s experience that would help us to find out more about those close to us? How can we get our own family members to open up and share their intimate stories with us?
“Ironically and unexpectedly, the fact that I don’t know these people makes them more comfortable to be able to talk about their problems, because I don’t know their history. I don’t come up to them with this backlog of judgments about them, this knowledge of their experience. I’m a completely blank slate. And because of that, they can share things without feeling that they’re being judged in a way that might be difficult to share with somebody that is close to them.
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“People waste way too much energy taking things personally. That Facebook post is probably not about you. It was probably an accident that you weren’t tagged in that picture. And the person you’re dating is probably acting sad because that’s how they respond to setbacks at work, not because of anything you did.”
“At the end of my senior year, I took some advanced level entry exams from Cambridge University. They are very difficult and very important. When the exam scores came in, my friend called me and told me that the principal was looking for me. My father was sitting next to me. He saw my face and asked me what was wrong. ‘I think I did very poorly,’ I told him. ‘Because the principal is looking for me.’ He told me that he would come to her office with me to support me. When we got there, there was a huge line of students waiting to get their scores, but the principal called me in. She told me I was one of three students in the school to get all A’s. My father was so nervous when I came out, and when I told him, he hugged me so hard that I could tell he was trying not to cry. He was so happy, he took all the money out of his wallet, handed it to the security guard, and told him to pass it out to everyone in line. It was the happiest moment of my life.”
“In my heart of hearts, I wanted to do the right thing, but selling drugs was easy. Everyone was doing it. I mean, I’m not using that as an excuse, I made my own decisions. But I grew up around these Robin Hood figures who would sell drugs, then buy supplies for kids who were going back to school, or pay rent for an old woman who was about to get evicted. All my friends were doing it. It almost seemed fashionable. I never felt proud of it. I always thought I’d transition to a job with the Transit Authority, or a job like this– something I’d feel good about, but instead I transitioned to jail. I did six years. When I got out, it was tempting to go back to the easy money, because everyone around me was still doing it, and I couldn’t get a job. But luckily I found an agency that helps ex-cons, because there aren’t many companies looking to give people a second chance. I’ve had this job for a few years now. You know what product I’m selling now? Myself. Everyone around here is my client. Times Square is a drug to these people. And I’m picking up all the trash so that they can have the full Times Square experience.”
“I had a child when I was sixteen. I got kicked out of high school because of all the absences. My family and community pretty much wrote me off. But right away I got a job at a sporting goods store. Soon I was able to get a job as a receptionist at a tax company, and they gave me enough responsibilities that I learned how to do taxes. Eventually I learned enough to become an associate. Then I got offered a job at a smaller company, and even though it was a pay cut, they offered me responsibility over all the books — accounts payable, accounts receivable, everything. It was less money but I wanted that experience so I took the risk. And I’m so glad I did, because six months later, the controller of that company left and I was given that position. They told me they couldn’t officially call me the controller because I didn’t have a college degree. So I finished my degree 5 months ago — just to make it official! So after having a child at sixteen, I made it all the way to controller of a company, without even having a college degree. Can you believe that? Honestly, I’ve been waiting to tell that story so long that I told it to a customer service representative on the phone last week. She was nice about it and pretended to care.”
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