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Speaker Series Reminds Students to Follow Dreams, Work Hard

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With the aim of bringing together generations of Great Danes and their families, the University at Albany’s Homecoming Weekend did just that with its first Speaker Series event of the year, featuring the creator of Humans of New York, Brandon Stanton.

The Georgia native took to the stage in the SEFCU Arena Saturday night to discuss the rewards of hard work and following one’s dreams. Stanton, 32, initially picked up a camera as a way to relieve stress from his job as a bond trader in Chicago. It was not until after he was fired from the job and was able to view time as a resource, that Stanton realized that for the first time in two years he could do anything that he wanted.

After beginning what he referred to as the “treasure hunt” of photographing downtown Chicago, he set a goal for himself: photograph 10,000 New Yorkers. The issue was however, he needed to not only move to New York but he also needed first month’s rent and a security deposit, roughly $3,000.

The reason for New York City? Stanton had never been.

“I got to New York and there were just so many people and not only so many people, but such diversity. There’s no diversity and density of people like there is in New York City.”

The vast city also gave him the opportunity to break out of his comfort zone.

“It’s a hard thing to do, to stop a random New Yorker and ask for anything,” he joked.

Since beginning the Humans of New York page on Facebook, which now has roughly 18 million followers, Stanton has impacted the lives of individuals and had them influence him in ways he never could have imagined when he first picked up his Cannon camera in Chicago.

One early Humans of New York photo he took of a Brooklyn boy resulted in over $1 million being raised for the boy’s school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy, and that fundraising led to an interview with President Barack Obama. He has also documented the struggles facing pediatric cancer patients and their families at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, a series which raised close to $4 million for the center. Recently, Stanton interviewed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

“It was very interesting to hear her talk about that the tightrope she walks [in politics] where she can’t emulate male politicians to the same effect because her behavior will be judged differently,” he said.

Stanton has also travelled throughout the world doing just as he does on the streets of New York. He has displayed the many faces of Syrian refugees and has travelled to Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Jerusalem, and Ukraine among various other countries.

Reflecting on his time in the Middle East, Stanton noted, “in reality, people said yes a lot more [to being photographed] than in New York City. In fact, there’s no place that I’ve been rejected more than New York City.”

For the former stockbroker, the hardest part of beginning the blog was having to get over the fear of engaging with a stranger. Initially, Humans of New York began as a photograph blog where Stanton would describe the individual, but overtime he began using direct quotes from the individual which later progressed into narratives, sometimes resulting in multiple posts of the same person.

He explained that when stopping random people on the street, asking his favorite question, “What’s your biggest struggle right now?” as well as requesting to take their photograph, there are typically two common threads running through their minds: the fear of being exposed and the appreciation for being heard.

“Many people in New York are down on their luck; for some people all they have to offer is their story,” the photographer said.

Over the years this has taught Stanton to simply listen; “the moment you are trying to accomplish something with the stories…you tend to stop listening to a person and you’re listening to the things they say that are going to fit into your narrative.”

His interviews, which can last anywhere from a half hour to an hour and a half, at times can become more like therapy sessions. He explained that often people reveal some things they have not even told their closest friends or family, stories of abuse, affairs and additions.

Using these narratives, Stanton has compiled roughly 1,200 interviews on camera over the past three years, which he is in the process of making into a television series. This will allow his audience to not only see, but feel the emotions the interviewee is exuding. In addition to the transformation to film, Stanton has plans for another international book. Although he is not completely clear on what the future holds for him, Stanton sees an endless array of opportunities, which he acknowledges can only come with hard work.  

“Do not wait for the perfect idea before you start working everyday… Trust the idea will grow out of the work as opposed to vice versa,” Stanton said.


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