One human from New York managed to find his way to the University of Michigan despite high winds and rainy weather Thursday night.
Brandon Stanton, renowned photojournalist and creator of the book and blog “Humans of New York,” delivered the Center for Campus Involvement’s annual Change Our World Lecture to a sold-out Power Center for the Performing Arts.
According to CCI’s website, the annual Change Our World lecture was created in 2015 to spark a conversation among students on creating positive impacts within the University community and the world at large. This year's event was sponsored by other institutions and organizations at the University, including the Center for Social Impact, the Stamps School of Art & Design and the Office of Global Education and Engagement.
During the lecture, Stanton recounted the life events that led him to pursue photojournalism and create his largest blog and photojournalist compilation, “Humans of New York.” Followed by more than 14 million people on Facebook, HONY is comprised of street portraits of New York residents accompanied by quoted captions about their day-to-day lives.
However, HONY wasn’t always the international sensation that it is today. Stanton said before starting the blog, he was a bond broker in Chicago hoping to earn enough income to pursue his true life passions.
After two years on the job, he was fired and left without much saved money. Looking back, Stanton said losing his job as a broker was a significant setback, but in turn caused him to reassess his true goals for his life.
“Two years had gone by where I had lost my thoughts; they’d been taken away from my true goal in life,” he said. “I realized that no amount of money that I made in those two years could possibly have bought that time back.”
Stanton said he soon after adopted a goal to have a fulfilling life while pursuing his true passions in photography.
“This is the decision that Humans of New York was founded on, and everything that came was built upon,” he said. “I made my decision that I’m going to structure the rest of my life to where I can make just enough money to control my time.”
Stanton said shortly after being fired, he moved to New York to further pursue photography, enabling him to separate his identity from the broking market.
“Photography was like a treasure hunt for me,” he said. “Just going out onto the streets and not knowing what you’re going to find, and just to find to something amazing and be able to capture it, it was so fun to me.”
The early stages of his photography in New York were only photographs of buildings, people and other subjects throughout the city. He said a pivotal moment for his work was when he photographed a woman standing on a sidewalk and attached a quote to the photo when he posted it on Facebook.
“Ever since that moment, Humans of New York became all about my mission, and became all about getting as good as I possibly can get at stopping a person on the street and creating an atmosphere," he said. "A style of conversation where with a very short amount of time I could have a very deep and meaningful conversation with a complete stranger that will reveal glimpses into their lives,” he said.
Stanton also shared comical asides and anecdotes throughout the night about interacting with his photography subjects globally. In addition to capturing subjects in New York, Stanton has also traveled to Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, where he has interviewed refugees affected by violence in the Middle East.
After the event, LSA junior Ryan Mak, a CCI program assistant, said Stanton’s experiences photographing subjects in the Middle East made him the perfect fit to deliver the lecture.
“We felt that Brandon was one of the best speakers to come because of his work with the Syrian refugees as well as the prison inmates,” Mak said. “It’s something that everyone resonates with because everyone loves stories, and so we thought that this would be the best speaker to come and give the greatest impact to students who come tonight.”
In a Q&A session after the event, Stanton said traveling to places like Iraq and Pakistan was beneficial in countering dominant misconceptions about life in the Middle East.
“I find that Humans of New York is most effective and most impactful in places that are feared,” he said. “In these countries they have such a string of negative news coming out of them — it results in us having an unnatural fear of these countries.”
Even though HONY often grapples with difficult subject matters, Stanton emphasized his work aims to highlight untold stories.
“Every revolution, every turn that I’ve made, every strategic decision that I’ve made with Humans of New York has been based on this core understanding that Humans of New York is not about photography, it’s not writing, but the soul of Humans of New York is all about the interaction with perfect strangers.”
He ended his remarks by encouraging students to reflect on their true aspirations in life.
“My goal was to figure out a way to make just enough money to do what I loved all day long,” he said. “That is something I am positive, if you’re willing to work, you can figure that out too.”
Stanton’s remarks resonated with many University students who attended the lecture, including Engineering freshman Marc Chattrabhuti, who said he decided to attend because he’s followed Stanton’s work for several years.
“I think HONY is a very noble cause,” Chattrabhuti said. “I would say it’s also really unique because you’re talking to everyday people who you don’t think would have very interesting stories.”
Chattrabhuti added he would remember Stanton’s words about finding an identity that would help him pursue his dreams.
“I really feel that people lose sight of their identity, and that’s why they change so much, and their goals are just completely skewed,” he said. “I really think I can apply that to myself because identity is what allows me to stay true to myself, allows me to know what I want to do and it really allows me to be rooted in my passions.”
First-year Law student Xun Yuan said he wanted to attend the lecture because he used to be a New York Times journalist and has worked with Middle Eastern refugees in Turkey.
“I think what (Brandon) does is just so fantastic,” he said. “It’s so different from anything I’ve ever done and anything else anyone else has ever done.”
Yuan said he plans to carry Stanton’s words of not giving up on your dreams during his time at the University.
“Start something you are passionate about and then don’t just get surrounded by your future plans, because things might change,” Yuan said. “If you’re passionate about something, go for it.”
The Trotter Multicultural Center will host a follow-up event Friday to discuss themes Stanton highlighted during his remarks.