ATLANTA—The things people tell Brandon Stanton are often deeply personal, stories they may not have shared even with close friends or family. But whether he's walking the streets of New York City, hearing about genocide in Rwanda or interviewing refugees around the world, Stanton simply listens.
Listening, he said, is the key that gets people to open up.
Stanton is the founder of the Humans of New York blog, which features a photo and accompanying quotes from each interview subject. The blog has become an Internet phenomenon with around 25 million followers. Stanton's Twitter account boasts 862,000 followers.
Stanton used photography to help him relax when it looked like he was about to lose his job as a bonds trader in Chicago. When his job ended, he moved to New York City and started his blog in 2010 with the aim of taking photos of 10,000 random people. The project has evolved into publishing in-depth stories from the strangers he meets there and abroad.
The blog has spawned two best-selling books—Humans of New York (St. Martin's Press, 2013), which spent 45 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and Humans of New York: Stories (St. Martin's Press, 2015). A new book is due in 2020: Humans, from his recent travels in 40 countries in South America, the Middle East and parts of Africa. His web show debuted on Facebook Watch in August 2017.
Stanton shared some of those stories and photos during the opening general session of the sold-out 2018 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition on Monday.
He is constantly surprised, he said, by how similar we all are. His observations echoed the opening remarks of SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, who stressed the importance of identifying our commonalities.
"It's obvious we're different," Taylor said. "We've got to figure out how we can help people feel they belong and are included."
For Gemma Toth, SHRM-SCP, understanding others is about "having the conversation where you're listening 100 percent," she tweeted. She is an HR management consultant, HR content writer and HR tech project manager in Omaha, Neb. "Give the other person the attention to hear their stories; that's how we truly learn about them."
For Jason Vollbrecht, benefits leader at Great River Energy in Maple Grove, Minn., Stanton's message for HR professionals was about "the importance of being an active listener, that everyone has a story, and the importance of sharing your story and learning from one another and hopefully dispelling any stereotypes." He added, "I think that's really important."
SHRM Online met up with Stanton following his talk and book signing. The comments have been edited for length and clarity.
SHRM Online: You've said you create this "bubble of intimacy" with strangers, and conversation gets very intimate very quickly. Why do you think that is? Do you think we're all seeking an intimacy we're not finding elsewhere?
Stanton: There are people who aren't comfortable with sharing, and you don't see those stories on the blog. [But] I think for a lot of people there is something "honoring" about being interviewed. You feel like you have something to say, that there's something interesting about your experience. A lot of times people are annoyed when they're first stopped, and then they get into it. People like to feel like they have a story worth telling. When you have someone who's superinterested in your story … it makes you feel important.
There's no question I won't ask, no question that's taboo. I will ask anything. There are no boundaries on privacy; the person has the opportunity to not answer. But I find no matter what you ask, people almost always answer. I think people want to talk.
SHRM Online: Are you a shy person? You've indicated in talks and YouTube videos that in the beginning, you just took pictures of people. When you started talking to people, you didn't talk with them long.
Stanton: No. I think I'm more extroverted and comfortable with people than most, but approaching people on the street is very daunting. It's inherently such an uncomfortable situation. It's difficult. It's kind of like door-to-door sales. There's a lot of energy exchanged. It takes some fortitude.… Approaching strangers is a very hard thing to do.
SHRM Online: Has your fame changed how you work?
Stanton: It's made things easier. I thought it might make people less authentic and more canned [in their answers]. But there's nothing less authentic about it. I'm very good at detecting authenticity now. I can tell when somebody is trying to present a version of themselves, like a business-card version of themselves, and I'll move on. A lot of people who wouldn't speak to me now do because they've heard of [my work]. They know it's something kind of substantial.
SHRM Online: Do people approach you now and ask to be interviewed for your blog?
Stanton: It happens.
SHRM Online: How do you handle that?
Stanton: I have a rule: It's got to be random. The randomness … is part of the magic of the blog.
SHRM Online: Does it still surprise you when people share such intimate stories?
Stanton: After seven years, nothing surprises me anymore. People have told me about times [when] they've been molested as a child—and they've literally never told anybody before. That's happened multiple times.
SHRM Online: When you hear stories like that and they've agreed—initially—to share those stories, are you concerned at all about privacy issues when you put it on your blog?
Stanton: A person always has the option to be anonymous, but even if they waive that, sometimes I will insist upon it, especially if the story involves another person. God forbid they are remembering incorrectly.
SHRM Online: Do people ever ask if they can see what you're posting?
Stanton: It does happen, but a lot less than you'd imagine. They'll go and look at the blog and start looking at comments and get nervous. They ask me not to post, or after I post they ask me to take it down.
SHRM Online: Do you take it down when they ask?
Stanton: Yes, always. I'll at least insist on taking a picture of their feet or hands … because it's a photo blog. More interesting is how rare that [request] is. It happens when the story is very personal; sometimes the person will come off looking great, and they'll still get nervous and not want to share. It's a very bright spotlight [to be on the blog], and you have thousands of strangers commenting on your life. I understand that.
SHRM Online: It occurs to me what great timing you have with the universe. This project is so perfect for these times.
Stanton: You know what's interesting, though? I think it hit the zeitgeist more in the [President Barack] Obama era than in the [President Donald] Trump era, because everybody who's really [been following] this project is so obsessed with Trump right now … and they're following him all day long. It's not a very good time for human-interest content, in my opinion, because Trump's taking up all the oxygen in the minds of progressive liberal people.
SHRM Online: Are you tired of doing this?
Stanton: I'm really not. I'm posting stories on genocide [in Rwanda], and my audience is following along. I started out posting interesting stories from New York. My audience has given me a mandate to tell stories. There's enough room to innovate and constantly do something fresh.
SHRM Online: What's ahead for you?
Stanton: I don't know. I enjoy these deeper series. I have a child now—4 months old—and that's changed my life a lot. I don't know the answer to that question; I'm trying to figure it out.
SHRM Online: You said having a child changed your life a lot. Has it cut back on your travel?
Stanton: It's cut back on the space in my head to sculpt and direct my artistic vision. But it's added a lot, too.I used to take these four-mile walks every single night [to think about] what I'm going to do next, and that's not really happening anymore. I have time to do what needs to be done.