One-on-one interview with 'Humans of New York' creator Brandon Stanton

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"I think one of the most powerful ways that we have [is] where we can see ourselves in other people," says Brandon Stanton. "If we’re all talking about our opinions and our philosophies, we’re all finding reasons to disagree."

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It all began when Chicago-based bond trader Brandon Stanton lost his job in 2010 and decided to move to New York City to pursue his passion in photography full time.

He set out to photograph random New Yorkers and plot their portraits in an extensive catalogue of the city. Stanton eventually paired their portraits with insightful, sometimes funny narratives. After publishing more than 10,000 stories on his photo blog “Humans of New York” (HONY) over the years, it captured the hearts of millions of people around the world.

HONY now has more than 18 million followers on Facebook and seven million on Instagram. It even evolved into a documentary series, which became the most followed series on Facebook Watch as of December 2017. Some of the stories were also published in bestselling books, “Humans of New York” and “Humans of New York: Stories.”

photo_2018-02-05_16-54-40 copy.jpg Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton at UP Cine Adarna. Photo by REX REMITIO

CNN Philippines had a one-on-one conversation with its creator Brandon Stanton after his back-to-back talks at Cine Adarna, University of the Philippines Diliman on Saturday. He is in the Philippines for a few days to gather and tell inspiring stories of ordinary Filipino people.

Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

In all of the stories that you’ve heard, what is the most memorable? That story that hit you the most?

Well, I wish I had a real, clean answer to that question because it’s so difficult. The stories kinda speak to me at different times of my life. Like for example, I am having a child in three months so now the parenting stories have become much more relevant. So what happens is I speak to all these people about these different aspects of life, all different ages, and going through different experiences. And these stories tend to come back to me in the moment when I’m experiencing something similar to them.

So it’s not that one story was so emotional that it completely stuck with me. It’s that the stories speak to me at given times when I’m going through something similar, and I think that’s when the stories speak to the audience too. I think every story has somebody out there in the audience that needs to hear [it] at that moment because they’re going through something similar.

I’m just curious, how were you able to entice people to share the most of their vulnerabilities and their weaknesses? It’s a pretty hard thing to do, right?

To make somebody feel comfortable, it really has to be more of a conversation than an interview, which is tough to get into. There’s like a very small tone difference between an interview and a conversation, and it’s when somebody feels that they’re like in a conversation that their guard kinda comes down. So I listen to people very closely. I ask questions based on what they’re saying. I’m very curious. And I think after a while, you know, people don’t even think that they’re being interviewed. There’s just somebody that’s talking to them, and a lot of people haven’t talked to somebody very deeply in a very long time. And that feeling of being validated, that feeling of having somebody care [about] what you’ve gone through is so strong that people very much want to share.

You’ve already told lots of stories but what do you think is your best contribution to humanity in telling those stories?

I very purposely try to keep my aim narrow, as opposed to saying “[I'm from] Humans of New York, I’m trying to unite people, I’m trying to help countries understand each other.” I try to avoid big statements like that because that’s out of my control. What’s in my control is how well I tell the story of the person that’s in front of my face. And so that is what I try to get as good as possible, helping the person in front of me tell their story.

I think one of the most powerful ways that we have [is] where we can see ourselves in other people. If we’re all talking about our opinions and our philosophies, we’re all finding reasons to disagree. But when we [are] sharing our stories, I think we find a lot more to connect to than if we’re sharing our opinions.

I think the best thing that any of us can do is learn to listen.

You’ve already interviewed the world’s most sensational people, like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Are you also looking forward to have an interview with President Rodrigo Duterte?

Personally, I am interested in everybody’s story, and it’s like the main thing for me. And he [Duterte] might be an exception in that a lot of times when you’re interviewing public figures, you get the public persona. And I found that not only in the Philippines but also in the United States.

Politicians are extremely tough because they are very good at presenting an image that they know will sell, and presenting an image that they know is very popular. What I’m not looking for is the image that makes somebody look the strongest, the most powerful, or the most politically savvy but, you know, their story, their vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and that’s difficult to get from politicians and public figures in general. My favorite interviews and the most powerful interviews I’ve done, like I’ve interviewed President Obama, I’ve interviewed Hillary Clinton, I’ve interviewed a lot of famous people, but the most powerful interviews that I do are with the normal average people that I meet.

What is your message to your fans, especially those that are planning to do the same thing that you did? Like create a ‘Humans of whatever city it is’.

First of all, to get good at interviewing, you have to interview a ton of people. You can’t just have the idea and go out there a few different times. Like, it’s very hard work, a lot of people will turn you down, a lot of people reject you. I think it’s very much about the art of listening. It’s not about having these prepared questions, it’s about getting into a conversation with somebody. And then once I’m in a conversation then it’s just about intensely listening to that person, being very curious and asking questions based on that curiosity. So I think the best thing that any of us can do, especially people who [are] trying to do work like this, is learn to listen.

What is your message to those people who experienced the same thing that happened to you eight years ago when you got fired in your job in Chicago?

I feel that if people work hard enough and devote themselves hard enough, they can find a way to make a living and make enough money doing something that they very much care about and they very much want to do. So I think that should be the goal. And also value your time. Even if you’re spending time with family, know what’s important to do with your time and value your time over all of the things. Never trade away your time just to feel important because you’re doing a job that you feel like people respect, or just to make more money than you need. Nothing is more valuable than the time itself. So find out what it is that you love to do, how you love to spend your time, and find a way to structure your life to where you can make just enough money where you can do those things.