The Saturday Read – ‘Humans of New York:Stories’ by Brandon Stanton

We learn from the wisdom of others. In Brandon Stanton’s new book we learn from the wisdom of strangers. The ‘Saturday Read’ this week is ‘Humans of New York: Stories’.

“The simplest way to describe the development of HONY over the past five years is this: it’s evolved from a photography blog to a storytelling blog…after cataloging thousands of people, I stumbled upon the idea of including quotes from my subjects alongside their photographs. The quotes grew longer and longer, until eventually I was spending fifteen to twenty minutes interviewing each person I photographed. These interviews, and the stories that resulted from them, became the new purpose of Humans of New York. The blog became dedicated to telling the stories of strangers on the street.”

The first career story is the author’s own. He graduated from college, took a job in Chicago as a bond trader, lost his job, moved to New York and started taking pictures of folks on the street. His work evolved into a blog with 15.6 million followers. His first book of photography, Humans of New York, landed at the top of The New York Times Bestseller List in the fall of 2013 and the new book will debut at the top of the November 1, 2015 list.

Why the response? Because the Mr. Stanton’s stories, told in words and images are about us. The scope of his project embraces NYC folks encountered on the street, reflecting on their past and future. We don’t know names. We don’t know ages. We can only guess in connecting the photo to the quote. At times the words seem at odds with the picture.

Here is one example from a young man, perhaps in his early teens.

“I’ve sort of had an arrogant demeanor my entire life, and I’m learning that I’m going to have to change that if I want to succeed. I realized that it doesn’t matter how clever you are if nobody wants to work with you.”

Another from a young woman seated on a suitcase, in the middle of a train station.

“I wish I’d partied a little less. People always say: ‘Be true to yourself.’. But that’s misleading because there are two selves. There’s your short-term self, and there’s your long-term self. And if you’re only true to your short-term self, your long-term self slowly decays.”

And a man at mid-life in what appears to be a cold corporate lobby, sitting on a stone bench, framed by a stone wall.

“When you’re twenty-five, you feel like you’re riding a wave. You feel like opportunities are just going to keep coming at you, and you think it’s never going to end. But then it ends.”

“When does it end?”

“When you turn forty, and they start looking for someone younger.”

The reader gets a sense they are looking in the mirror, but they’re not. The photo doesn’t match the selfie, but the sentiment fits.

Heather Long, writing for CNN Money, interviewed Stanton and attended his reading at a NY Barnes and Noble. What has he learned in the process of photographing and interviewing 10,000 people? “Americans should reconsider how much they work.”

“He often asks: What is your biggest struggle? And what do you regret most in life?
“Balancing my life is an answer I hear a lot,” he said. “Balancing work and family.”
People go on to tell him how they wish they had skipped that marketing conference and attended their daughter’s 8th grade dance instead.”

One of my favorite ‘inteviews’ appears early in the book (page 5). The narrative comes from a third grader (?).

“I want to build a bridge”

“How do you build a bridge?”

“If you want to build a bridge, it’s going to take a long time and it might be hard because your employees might not be as interested in building a bridge as you are. You have to think about what type of bridge you want to make…” 

He could be talking about life and career.

HONY: Stories invites us on a road trip through the streets of New York, opting for the detours that welcome conversation. This is a book to read slowly, observing the detail in the photos and the humanity in the words. It’s a compendium of other’s lifelong learning, generously shared.

“I want to be an artist.” “What kind of art do you want to make?” “I want to make different versions of myself.”

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