HONY stands for HUMANS of NEW YORK. It’s my favorite FB page and a New York Times bestselling book. In the following Chase Jarvis interview with the creator of HONY, Brandon Stanton, on Feb. 19th 2014, we get a chance to hear about the strategies behind the wildly successful daily photo commentary of everyday people in New York. The reason I’m inspired by HONY and the way Brandon works is that he follows the model that can get to the heart of a person’s life story, in only a few short minutes: being open and non-threatening, and asking a meaningful question. I love this interview, because it gives so many tips that anyone can apply in virtually any situation where they want to create more meaningful HUMAN relations.
To watch the entire 90-minute program, check out Chase Jarvis’ website at http://www.chasejarivs.com/live. You can see many more amazing interviews there as well. Follow Brandon at https://www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork.
Q: How did you start in order to get where you are now? “Tiny steps, doing what you love. I really enjoyed doing photos. I always saw myself as a creative person. I moved to New York with a goal: 10,000 portraits. For six months I treated it like a job. Telling people, I’m an artist, I’m a photographer. Just flipping that switch made all the difference. All I did was take photos.”
Q: What are some of the STRATEGIES you use?
-Set a goal: 10,000 photos;
-Set aside time: two hours a day;
-Stop and talk to 10-12 people every day;
-Post 5 photos on FB daily;
-WORK HARDER than anyone else;
-LOVE what you do (be your own #1 fan first);
-If something works, do more of it;
-Ask questions, and then follow up with more questions!
Q: What are some of the regular questions that you ask?
-“What’ your greatest challenge right now?”
-“What was the happiest moment of your life?” (Saddest, scariest…)
-“If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?”
Q: Why does HONY have such a universal appeal? “I want to create a culture of positivity, celebration and support. I try not to focus on the universal appeal. I’m just one dude with a camera. What can you do to stay centered? Focus on working 2 hours every day, stopping 10-12 people, and taking 5 photos every day. These are the things I can control. If I get philosophical about it, so much of social media is stage managed. You get the version that everybody wants you to see. HONY is very unstage-managed. I’m just a dude walking around having conversations with people. They let their guard down, and they’re really honest. You get honest, refreshing glimpses of people. There’s a paradox on the street: it feels sort of anonymous, even when they know that 3 million people are going to see it on the internet. However, if there’s even just 1 friend standing next to them, they clam up. There’s something about talking to somebody who doesn’t know your history, who doesn’t have all these preconceived judgments about you. People feel very very comfortable being completely open with someone they don’t think has any preconceived notions of them.”
Q: How has HONY changed since you started? “At first, I looked for visual clues~ interesting-looking people. Now I just look for people who are alone, who I can talk to. I spend a lot of time trying to draw out the interesting story. I follow my natural curiosity. I have no stigma about what to ask. I never censor myself or my questions because I’m afraid of somebody’s reaction. People really appreciate it. We’re surrounded by people who don’t ask us those deep real questions (they’re taboo). Every single thing we’re holding in because people won’t ask us those questions, other people are holding in too. When somebody tells me this sad, tragic story, 60 people had the exact same thing happen.”
Q: What do you look for, and how would you define HONY? “I try not to look for anything in particular ~or put people into the context of my view of humanity. No preconceived notions. About HONY, I’d rather not define it. The moment I define it, it will lose something.
Q: What makes a post popular? “Honest is the guage about how good a post is. Honesty vs concealment. I can tell when a person is really open. Open energy. They’re searching their mind, they’re honestly and openly participating in the process. That’s engaging to the audience. I know for a fact that was the highlight of their week. The human interaction.”
Q: How often do you get rejected? “At first, 2 out of 3 people said no. Now, 1 out of 3 people say no. I don’t think it’ll ever get any better than that.”
Q: Has there been any heartbreak along the way? “When I get the great photo, and people don’t have time or want to talk. But I’ve been really lucky by the warm response to HONY. I’m a sensitive dude. The reception has been so positive! I keep waiting for it to turn. So far, it’s been overwhelmingly supportive. I try not to say much, or give an opinion often. About .01% get mad at me when I make a mistake. That’s 300 emails and it feels like the whole world is coming down on me. So I like to stay in the background as much as possible. I prefer it there.”
Q: Do people ever ask you to take their comment or photo down? “It’s a lot of pressure. Being on HONY is also very intimidating. I won’t change their caption, but I’ll immediately take the picture down if they ask me to. It’s only happened 3 or 4 times.”
Q: How about doing a HOMELESS of NEW YORK? “HONY is broad enough to incorporate a cross-section of people. I don’t want to focus on any one group exclusively. I don’t want to focus on their homelessness. For example, I ask, What books do you read? 24 hours after the Boston bombing I spent 1 week talking to people there all day with the single goal of NOT asking anyone about the bombing. In Tehran, I did street portraits and didn’t ask a single person what they thought about America or their govt. I asked about their kid brother or their private life.”
Q: How do you stay centered? “I wear the exact same clothes all the time. I spend time with my four best friends from high school. People were paying attention, and I was doing what I loved. That happiness didn’t require anything special, just time. I’m happy. I don’t want to create complexity. I just try to change as little as possible, hang out with the same people, and laugh at it.”
Q: Have you grown? “I’ve had conversations with about 10,000 people about very deep issues in their lives. These interviews always come back to me. I always remember the captions.”
Q: Why are you ruthlessly simple (single-minded)? “I can afford to stay simple because the stories are what keeps the interest. I put up 5 posts a day. I focus on the things I can control. I want to be able to say that I work harder than anybody. I’m serious about keeping that commitment for myself and for my audience.”
Q: Can you show us how you talk to people? “I always try to approach people as calm and non-threatening as possible. I always take off my hat and scrunch down ~ I mean, I’m 6’4″~ and my friends laugh because my voice always goes higher. ‘Excuse me. Do you mind if I take your photograph?’ I take a full-body photo. Then I ask a question, ‘If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?’ I’m always looking for stories~ not opinions. So tell me about the time that you had the most difficulty controlling your world?” (Robin: Follow-up questions!!! Yay!)
Q: Can you give any advice to aspiring people out there? “All advice is geographical. What’s the story underneath people’s opinions? The heart of HONY comes from the follow-up questions~ (YES!!) someone really interested, and really listening.
Q: Tell us about the book: “We started pitching the book at 280,000 followers. Only 1 publisher made an offer (out of 6). I knew people loved HONY. The system is so resistant to trying new things. They all said, ‘It’s too regional,’ or ‘photo books don’t sell.’ I knew a ton of people would buy it. All I could think of was, ‘I’ll show you guys!'”
Q: What kept you going all that time? “If you have just one true fan: someone you don’t know who absolutely loves your work. But you also have to be your own first fan. You have to love your own work enough to work your ass off without getting any validation. There’s somebody out there just like you. Somebody who’s so liberated by what you’re doing. It was so liberating. That’s why I’m so religious about working every single day. It’s been 3 years and I haven’t taken a single day off.”
“When I’m talking to someone, I always try to find what is unique about this person? I text things to myself while they’re talking. I’m always thinking about HONY~ it’s difficult to think of my life as separate from it. I’m big in China now! So I started a WEBO account, and I’m going to start translating the captions into Chinese. If something works, do more of it!”
This is a great article. My husband loves HONY, he follows on FB. There is also a similar one about Boston people. I wish I was more brave about photographing random people.