By GHADEER ALARADI, Opinions Editor
One man, one dream, one huge impact on the world: Brandon Stanton, the creator of Humans of New York (HONY) was a guest speaker at the UM-Ann Arbor campus. Believe it or not, Stanton had a humble beginning and was thrilled when he had 10 new fans a day, and he now has over 20 million followers on social media.
Humans of New York started off as a popular blog telling stories of strangers from New York City. It consisted of a portrait of a person, and quotes or short stories to go along with the photo. It quickly evolved, and now has over 17 million followers on Facebook and over 4 million on Instagram.
Stanton was this year’s guest speaker for Change our World, which is an organization that starts conversation about making an impact in the community and the world at large. Of course, Stanton was the perfect fit for an event like this.
The doors for the Power Center of Performing Arts were open at 6 p.m., and as I walked up to the door, I noticed a line of people waiting for the door to open. It wasn’t long before I walked inside to see an exhibit of photos of University of Michigan students in HONY style. The photos were hung on the wall, with their quotes next to their pictures. I read the stories of fellow Wolverine students while standing in line to enter the auditorium.
As I entered the room, the stage had the lights on with a slide that said, “Change our World” and Brandon Stanton’s name as the guest speaker. Next thing I knew, Stanton was on the stage speaking about his story, and how he founded HONY.
Stanton started off as an insurance bond trader in Chicago, taking pictures during his free time. When he first started taking photographs, he did not take pictures of people. His first photo of a person was shown on the screen, and it was of two kids on the subway looking at the same thing with the same facial expression.
“Because I got over my fear of interacting with strangers, I was able to create something unique,” said Stanton.
It was only when he was fired from his job that he decided to pursue photography full-time. He had one goal: to take pictures of 10,000 New Yorkers and plot their portraits on a map of the city. So he moved to New York.
Stanton mentioned something important — that his goal was to make as much money as he could to do the thing that he loves all day, which is to take pictures. He described his first apartment in the city (a bad neighborhood), and living with three strangers with no furniture but a mattress. He went out all day to take as many pictures as he could.
His first picture along with a quote was of a woman wearing all green. The quote was, “No, I used to go through different stages. But then I found that I was happiest when I was green, so I’ve been green for 15 years.” That photo was taken in 2011, and it received the most comments and likes. That is how Stanton started the concept of HONY.
Stanton also described how HONY evolved from less than 100 people to millions following him worldwide. He said people like hearing stories of strangers, but it did not happen overnight. He said, “It’s so hard to follow your dreams because it takes so much work before anyone will pay attention. You are your only fan.” The concept of HONY, as described by Stanton, is not that it’s an interview. “It’s a genuine conversation followed by a photograph.”
Stanton started off in New York City, but he expanded to other countries and cities. He was invited to the White House in February 2015, just four years after he took his first photograph of a person. Stanton also traveled to countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. Stanton said that he specifically chose areas that received negative attention from the media. “Humans of New York is most impactful when it tells the story of countries we fear. The media thrives on only the negative,” he said.
There was an energy in the room that was indescribable; Stanton had the crowd’s attention and awe the whole time, and cracked jokes while doing so. Stanton even described his followers as the kindest people, and there is so much energy in their kindness. He is one person who has an incredible effect on people around him. He proves to me that one person can make a difference; and that is what pushes me to work harder.