In a packed Amphitheater, Chautauquans silenced their cell phones, and lived fully in the present moment. In a time period influenced by man-made distractions, photographer Brandon Stanton encouraged the audience to remain present in the moment, and to connect with those around them.
“The greatest challenge today in any place that’s foundational philosophy is community, is that the entire trend of society is people connecting alone,” Stanton said.
Stanton gave his lecture Friday, July 8, closing out Week Two of the Chautauqua Lecture Series theme of “The Wild: Reconnecting with our Natural World.” While technology is often viewed as inherently negative in many spaces, Stanton highlighted the importance of wisely using technology to facilitate genuine human interactions and conversation.
“Nothing is ever inherently good or evil, rather it’s all about how it gets used,” Stanton said. “I try to use technology to recreate real conversations and the real moments of connection that I have with people on the street.”
Stanton is the creator of “Humans of New York,” a photoblog where he first started documenting photographs and interviews from his conversations with strangers on the streets of New York. Since the beginning of his career, his work has expanded into multiple formats, including three New York Times bestselling books and social media accounts amassing nearly 20 million followers.
His story begins in 2010. After flunking out of college, taking a short break, and successfully graduating, Stanton worked as a stockbroker in Chicago. He said that he spent the majority of his time thinking about his job, and the money he could earn from it. His identity and free time became completely consumed by it.
“I was clinging to this feeling of success. All I thought about was that job,” Stanton said. “I was obsessed with it, wanting to do well and trying to do well. It became my identity.”
Stanton said that his mindset was focused solely on attaining prestige and success, and that those are common motivators for many people in society.
“I think people optimize for what, in a way, brings them away from the present moment and genuine interaction,” Stanton said. “And that is prestige: this feeling of importance and how we look in others’ minds.”
To take his mind off work, and distance himself from being motivated by the material parts of his life, Stanton decided to purchase a camera. The camera provided him with a fresh perspective on what is of utmost value in life. He began photographing nature until, eventually, on the subways of Chicago, he took his first photo of strangers: a picture of two mothers lovingly holding their sons while standing next to each other as the boys looked upward in amazement.
“I remember looking at that photo and feeling such a sense of accomplishment,” he said. “It wasn’t because the focus was perfect, or because the white balance was perfect. None of that is still perfect in my photography. It was because I was connecting with a stranger.”
After this transformative interaction on the subway, Stanton decided to pursue photography. At the time, even though he knew that he wasn’t the “best” photographer in the world, he set out to become the best photographer who stopped random people on the street. He shifted his mindset from attaining material wealth, to seeking out connection. This is the moment when Stanton’s life started to change.
“I spent years of my life trying to make money,” Stanton said. “But one day I asked myself, ‘What would I do if I made just enough money to where I controlled my time?’ It was a very small distinction. But after that, my entire life was built on that … to just do what I want to do in the moment. And that was photography.”
After losing his stockbroker job, Stanton moved to New York with a plan to photograph and interview 10,000 strangers on the city’s streets. He had almost no photography experience and had never even been to New York before. After spending a few months in the city, Stanton became an expert at making strangers feel comfortable being photographed, and more importantly, vulnerable in sharing intimate details about their personal lives with him.
“The thing I had gotten good at was getting over the initial … discomfort that you feel in the presence of a stranger,” he said. “But, I started to think, ‘Wouldn’t it be wise to also take advantage of the moment to learn about this person, so I could share something about this person’s life with other people who also might be curious about the strangers around them?’ ”
Stanton said that sometimes his subjects share personal details that they haven’t shared with anyone else before, including close family members and friends. There is something about talking to a stranger that allows people to be completely open, honest and vulnerable, Stanton said.
“The people closest to us have the most solidified notions of who we are. They already have an idea of who we are,” Stanton said. “There’s something about coming up against someone with a blank slate.”
Stanton said that once we get to know someone, we often have a tendency to become less curious about who they are, because we think we already know everything about them. However, he encouraged audience members to remain ever-curious, as curiosity is what fuels genuine connection and conversation.
“The beauty is in conversation,” he said. “Beliefs and opinions separate us. The things that unite us are relationships, experiences and emotions.”