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The Indiana Daily Student

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‘It’s just joy’: Photographer Brandon Stanton delivers speech to IU students


From sleeping on a mattress on the floor of his New York City apartment to interviewing Barack Obama in the Oval Office, photographer Brandon Stanton offered advice about identity and fulfillment to IU students during an IU Auditorium event Thursday. 

Stanton, 37, is the founder and owner of “Humans of New York,” a photo-blog that captures portraits and captions of people on the streets of New York City. He’s also produced multiple New York Times bestsellers and has 11 million followers on Instagram. In December 2013, Stanton was listed on Time’s “30 Under 30 People Changing The World.”

Stanton attributed his success to following his passion for photography. It’s a lesson, he told students during the  Zoom event, that is important for college-aged adults to learn.

“It wasn’t something I was doing because it was good in the eyes of other people,” Stanton said. “It was something that, in the present moment, I loved doing. I enjoyed it in the moment, and so I wanted to build a life and structure a life around that present moment.” 

There were moments in his life before he became a world-renowned photographer where Stanton didn’t think with this level of clarity, he said. As a student at the University of Georgia, Stanton regularly skipped classes, did drugs and got drunk. He eventually flunked out of school.

“When I was like 18 or 20, I was kind of depressed, I was disillusioned,” Stanton said. “Nothing really seemed to make sense. I just couldn’t buy into school.”

Stanton moved into his grandparents’ basement and watched his peers post pictures of their graduation on Facebook.

Eventually, Stanton enrolled in community college before returning to Georgia and completing his history major. Shortly after, Stanton landed a job in Chicago as a bond trader. 

At first, the job made Stanton feel like he was successful, he said. When he went home, he could tell his family and friends about his sparkling gig, buthe attached his self-worth to his title and couldn’t stop worrying about stocks dropping or losing his job, Stanton said.

“You know that identity, attaching ourselves to money, that’s bad,” Stanton said. “You don’t want to chase money. That’s a path to being unfulfilled at the end of your life.”

In 2008, Stanton was fired from his job and vowed to pursue his photography passion. 

When he was 26 years old, Stanton decided to move to New York City and chase a career as a photographer with barely any experience. He was living off of $300 government checks, he said. 

Stanton moved to New York City and lived in an apartment with four other people he didn’t know. His main meals consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and eggs. At one point, he contracted swine flu. He borrowed money from friends.

But still, Stanton continued to chase his work. He walked around the city because he couldn’t afford a car, capturing portraits and conducting short interviews with his subjects. Stanton said his first photo received zero likes and one comment. 

After sharing around 10,000 photos, he gained a following of a couple thousand. His interviews grew longer, and the questions he asked became more personal. His popularity continued to grow.

“When you dig down in someone’s vulnerabilities and their pain you get to the stuff that unites us,” Stanton said. “We all know pain looks different in everybody’s life, but it feels the same.”

Stanton published his first book in 2013, where it remained on the the New York Times Nonfiction Best Sellers list for 26 weeks. 

Now, Stanton’s Facebook following is more than 17 million users, and people recognize him on the streets of New York. He’s used his platform and photography skills to raise $3.8 million for pediatric cancer research. 

“I want to build a life around doing what I love every single day,” Stanton said. “It’s that moment where I’m sitting on the street at the feet of a stranger and listening to them. It’s just joy.”

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