What HONY Taught Me About Approaching Strangers

Brandon Stanton, creator of Humans of New York

I’ll never forget the first time I stumbled upon the now famous blog, Humans of New York. I was a recent east coast transplant myself, taking in the sights and sounds while feeling incredibly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people that filled the loud, busy, and — let’s be honest — smelly streets of New York City. I would watch as employees from different tourist attractions would attempt to hand out flyers in Times Square (shout out to Allen Arthur) as people would quickly rush past them, not even uttering a word.

But this wasn’t just happening in Times Square. I would observe similar behaviors on subway platforms, street corners and during my commute in and out of the city from New Jersey when NJ transit wouldn’t release which platform your train would be on until literally minutes before the train was set to depart.

These observations led me to wonder how someone like Brandon Stanton, creator of HONY, is able to not only stop people on the street and ask for their photo, but also convince them to share their story. As Leila Day points out in her article, “we need to get better at talking to people in communities that aren’t our own.” Somehow, Brandon Stanton is doing exactly that. And doing it well.

In an effort to achieve trust in an unfamiliar community, I began to retrace my steps by going back to the HONY blog. How does he bring out such vulnerability from random people on the street? And not only that, but on a social media platform full of pictures of people, how is he managing to create such a large audience? I needed to know more.

I began watching videos of Brandon explaining how he approaches people. During his TED Talk at the University of Columbia, he shared that after already spending seven days in a specific community he was asked the following: “Do you know where you are? You can’t talk to people in this neighborhood.” He continued to explain that oftentimes, a person’s perception of a place or a community doesn’t always match up to the reality of what happens on a day to day basis.

Photo Credit: Brandon Stanton

TBH (see what I did there?), we as journalists are partially to blame for creating these perceptions — aren’t we the ones who are ultimately deciding what is newsworthy and what is not? However, Leila Day believes that one of the ways to shift this is to “seek to understand more than you need to know for a story. Ask questions, talk to strangers, say yes to events that you are invited to. You don’t always need to be recording. Just be present.”

In a program that boldly takes on the challenge of shifting the way we approach journalism, it is important to remember that as many of us plan to enter communities that we may not be familiar with, it is essential that we first engage as a person and not as a journalist. By doing so, we are able to identify our preconceived notions or ideas about a community and shift those based on what is really happening day in and day out. And who knows, maybe one of these days we’ll bump into HONY creator Brandon Stanton on the street and chat about our work.