I'm on vacation this week, so in lieu of a post written by me, I want to pass along a story that's been resonating with me lately.
Many of us know and love Humans of New York, the book, website and social media presence. HONY is the brainchild of Brandon Stanton, who took a simple premise and made it a huge phenomenon: to photograph ordinary New Yorkers, telling their stories. It's a testament to the power of attentive listening and radical empathy, and has become wildly popular--an outpost of kindness on the Internet. (HONY is now nomadic, with recent trips to Pakistan, Brazil, and more.)
But have you ever heard the story of how HONY began? Here is Stanton talking about the tumultuous--and lonely--early days. I'm not going to offer any commentary or pithy summary at the end of this--I'm simply going to share it, so we can rest in these words and let them do whatever they need to do, for each of us:
“I’m in New York, and I’ve been trying to make it work for 6 months. I worked every day, including Christmas and Thanksgiving. All I did was photograph all day long. I had gotten thousands of these portraits and not many people were paying attention.”
“The hardest part about it was especially when I got started, and Humans of New York didn’t have any fans, and it wasn’t made into any books, and my family didn’t believe in it, and my friends thought I was crazy. I had no photography experience. I’m in New York City stopping random people and asking them questions. I’m feeling insecure.”
“When you walk up to somebody and you ask them if you can take their photo and they respond like you’re some sort of freak or that you’re weird, it’s hard to not internalize that because you’re so insecure at the moment about whether or not what you’re doing is weird and if it’s something that – am I weird for asking these people for their photographs? I’d go out some days, and ten people in a row would make me feel like I’m some sort of freak.”
“Like, “Do you know what city you’re in? You can’t be stopping random people. Get out of my way. What are you doing? No, you can’t take my photo. Get out of here.” And during my formative and impressionable early days when I’m trying to figure this out, five reactions like that in a row when nobody’s paying attention to your work, and you’ve been trying for months, and you can’t figure it out, psychologically was very tough. There’d be days where that would happen, and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I would just go home and lay in bed.”
“It was all of the doubt, and not having any money, and nobody’s paying attention, and I’m just doing this all day long for months. The loneliness too, I didn’t know anybody in New York. I knew two people. There was a Christmas break where those two people went home, and for two weeks, I didn’t see anybody that I knew. I remember I spent Christmas Eve alone at a diner. Then I just went out and photographed because it was the only thing that would keep me from thinking about how unlikely it was and how stupid of an idea it might be.”
“The only thing that I think kept me from thinking about the possibility of failing was doing it, was just photographing. Whenever I started to think, “Is this gonna work? Is it not gonna work?” I’d just go out and photograph. That was my only way of keeping those wolves away of, “Is this ultimately going to be a success? Am I wasting my time? Am I stupid?”
“The only way to keep those away was to go out and work. So that’s what I would do just all day long and do it and do it and do it. These negative things like the rejection of people and people saying no that I was talking about, all of the negative stuff, the thing that was counteracting that all the time was just loving it so much. I just loved it so much.”
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