An Evening With Brandon Stanton

Time and time again, Florida universities offer lectures from esteemed individuals to  come speak to students and impart knowledge on ideas/topics meaningful and relevant. The University of South Florida has welcomed guests such as John Legend, Jane Goodall, Bill Nye, Abby Wambach, and more. This past semester USF welcomed Brandon Stanton, who is the photographer and creator of Humans of New York (HONY). HONY is a project which Brandon photographs ordinary people with extraordinary experiences that he casually encounters on the streets in New York City. I am a huge fan and I’ve been following HONY for about 4 years now on Facebook. The stories are really incredible reads. Some stories offer a little giggle, and some have even moved me to tears. With a massive followership, the stories he shares create widespread awareness and positive support.  He recently pursued a project with the United Nations  and went to several different countries shining light on many social issues from bonded labor, the refugee crisis, poverty, etc.

Brandon seemed like a very humble man, and his words were motivating. He spoke about his origins from college years and moving to New York. He actually royally flunked out of college. Which surprised me. He then picked up a corporate job dealing with bonds and found himself unhappy watching dollar signs. After getting fired, he came to the conclusion that he wants to make a living on something that he actually enjoys doing. So he picked up photography. He wasn’t even very skilled at it, but he constantly practiced and tried to better himself. He stressed that being “your” best is very important, and it takes practice. Being the absolute best at something is far less important than doing YOUR very best. That really resonated with me. I often find myself comparing myself to others, and getting discouraged. If I wasn’t giving my very best, then I have a reason to be discouraged. But if I am putting forth my very best, then I should think of and appreciate my own successes and wins rather than compare it to others.

He also talked about his move to New York City from Illinois. It was classic drop everything you have and move scenario “This guy decides to quit his job and heads to New York City” moment. After more and more practicing, he found his niche. Photographing people. But how do you photograph a complete stranger on the streets without being a total weirdo about it? You have to lend an open ear. It takes a good amount of bravery and effort to approach someone and hold a sincere conversation that goes beyond the surface level. It takes a huge effort to contribute to a conversation, and make a stranger comfortable enough to trust and share something profound about an experience in their life. After photographing hundreds of people, this guy must be a master. And it all comes with practice, and sincere effort.

My Own Philosophy: It is totally scary sometimes, especially for introverts. Even socially exhausting. Face to face interaction is so much meaningful than a text message or an email, and with that, it takes that much more effort. Someone is actively giving you their time, listening, receiving, and understanding. And on the other hand, some else is imparting knowledge, emotion, and life experiences, all hoping someone on the receiving end can relate. The way we communicate is far more intimate than we realize. Small talk is exhausting, but what is beyond small talk takes effort and bravery to get through. What we find beyond the small talk can be surprising. I have found this to be true when I fly. If you are going to sit next to someone for 3 hours with nowhere else to go in a cramped plane, shouldn’t you say something more than just “Hey, how are you?” It is mindblowing to me how people can go a 12 hour flight without talking to the stranger next to them. On flights, I have had rich conversations with people I may never see again, but I will remember for a long time.

Brandon also shared a few of his early and more recent works, with a story behind them, which was a real treat. Kind of like a behind the scenes, “this is also what happened during this time”. It is crazy how large his audience has grown in just 5 short years, and listening to him speak this past April was inspiring. I can’t wait to see where else his work takes him, and the rest of the world.

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