March 9, 2014

Standing in line to see Brandon Stanton, the man behind the Humans of New York blog and book, was like discovering his blog for the first time.

Because Stanton was scheduled to speak at 11:15 a.m. on the stage inside in the SXSW trade show, which didn’t open until 11 a.m., it seemed like something big was about to happen.

“Is this the line for Humans of New York?” people kept asking. “Yes,” someone in the line would say. Then three other people who were standing in the line would say, “What’s Humans of New York?”

Then someone would explain the simple concept behind the blog turned book: Some guy takes simple portraits of people in New York, tells a small story about them and people love it. Now it’s a book that’s “on the way to becoming the most widely sold photography book of all time,” which Stanton explained to his audience.

Stanton sat alone on the stage as the crowd filtered in, wearing jeans, a sweater and a green baseball cap turned backwards. He shared a little of his backstory during his packed session Sunday at SXSW Interactive. A fired bond trader, he moved to New York four years ago, with a goal of taking 10,000 photographs. He started publishing his photos on a Facebook page. From there he expanded to Tumblr, Instagram and ultimately his best-selling book.

He started his talk by admitting how nervous he was and asking for an audience volunteer to come on stage so he could demonstrate how he approaches a stranger and ask questions. He got 17-year-old Hannah, who wowed the crowd with a sophisticated understanding of fair use and copyright. Then he asked her if she wanted to stay on stage with him, because she alleviated his nervousness.

Ultimately Stanton offered a list of advice for budding journalists, citizen journalists and other entrepreneurs.

  • How to approach a stranger: “Getting a stranger to feel comfortable has nothing to do with the words that you use but the energy that you have,” he said. When he first started, he had a wordy pitch, with a high voice and lots of explanation. He still has the high voice, but he he eventually, he whittled it down to, “Can I take your picture?” He offers a follow-up explanation of the blog, for those who need more. When he started, two out of every three people turned him down.
  • Everyone has a story. Most of the time Stanton starts with a general question like, “What advice would give?” But he uses that to get to a personal story. He knows he has enough for his extended caption when he’s heard something that no one has ever told him before.
  • Work on the work, not the promotion. Stanton was focused to the point of tunnel vision on publishing 10,000 photos, not promotion. “I can’t tell you how many musicians I know who have two or three songs and all they do is promote those songs,” he said.
  • Once you have one true fan of your work, you’re on your way. Stanton still remembers the first letters from people describing how Humans of New York had emotionally impacted them.
  • Figure out what you do that’s different from everybody else. “I know I’m not going to be the best photographer out there,” he said. “It’s about doing the one thing I can do better than anybody else and that’s talk to strangers.”
  • It’s the story, stupid. Once Stanton had a little success, he tried to break into fashion photography. But soon he realized that it wasn’t the photography, it was the storytelling that was drawing in his audience.
  • Publish, then refine. “Humans of New York today is very different from what I set out to do,” Stanton said. But until you publish, you can’t get a lot of feedback. He’s skeptical of people with great ideas, who won’t share a rough cut of their work.

A cynic or a sophisticate might dismiss Stanton’s advice as clichés found in any column about entrepreneurs, but he arrives at his ideas honestly. While others try to attach a motive or a theme to Humans of New York, he resists. That’s part of the attraction. If he thinks much about the technical aspects of photography, he didn’t discuss it. He takes notes by sending himself texts. He still tries to post five new pictures and stories every day.

His favorite place to take pictures? Central Park.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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