The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

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Brandon Stanton: Embrace Failure

“Humans of New York” photographer comes to SJU Advises students to “learn how to fail” during college years

Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton urged 3,500 St. John’s students to embrace failure and challenge themselves.

“You’ve got to learn to fail, and you’ve got to learn to fail right now,” Stanton said during a Nov. 5 lecture series.  

The 31-year old world recognized photographer spoke in Carnesecca Arena about the start to his critically acclaimed project, the failures he encountered and the journey it has taken him on since.

“It started with the decision that I wanted to do something that I love, and the faith in myself to figure everything else out afterwards,” he said.

Before moving to New York City, Stanton had been consumed in drugs, fired from his job as a Chicago bond trader – the one he landed after betting on Barack Obama for president in 2008 – and failed out of the University of Georgia.

As a dire attempt to escape his nightmare, Stanton bought his own camera.

“I bought the camera in desperation, as a way to kind of create some part of my life that was separate from work, just to blow off steam,” he said.

Stanton noted some of the difficulties with his photographs, such as the innumerable attempts in persuading his friends to purchase his pictures. He succeeded in one case, when his friend paid $300 for one of his works. Stanton used this money toward paying for his Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment in NYC. He accentuated his hard work, the defeats that came with attempting to rise to stardom in the big apple and what he learned along the way.

“I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t go to concerts. I didn’t go to restaurants. I didn’t go to theaters. All I did was photograph,” he told the students. “It was the hardest time of my life, but also the greatest time of my life because I was doing what I loved every single day.”

He said it takes courage and skill to embrace failure.

“When you’re not afraid to fail, it’s like having a superpower because you can take any risk that you want,” he said. “When you’re willing to take any risk that you want, you’re gonna be a success.”

The advice resonated with sophomore Julia Bennefield, who found Stanton’s words promising.

“When he was talking about how much he’s failed and then seeing how successful he is now is so encouraging but also relatable for someone like me,” she said.  

Freshman Lauren Majid agreed, and enforced the importance of approaching mishaps.

“In order to succeed, it’s essential to know how to handle the setbacks and bumps in the road,” she said.

When first moving to Manhattan five years ago, Stanton’s dream was to photograph 10 thousand people. He mentioned the first portrait he ever took in NYC, of two young kids accompanied by their parents on the train, both gazing at the same subway sign. The picture generated zero likes and only one comment from a fellow classmate on his community college quiz bowl team that read, “Racial harmony. I like it!” Since then, Stanton notes the vast contrast in both popularity and style of his pictures. What was once a collage of NYC’s funky, unconventional exterior shifted into personal portraits, ones that focused more on the intimate details.

“It had gone from something very visual, where I was connecting with things based on what they looked like, to something that was much more about the storytelling,” he said.

Today, the HONY Facebook page carries more than 15 million fans, with each picture racking up thousands of likes. Its international popularity has allowed Stanton to visit Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, South Sudan, Jerusalem and Democratic Republic of Congo, among others.

The popularity he has garnered has granted him the ability to raise up to five million dollars for various causes. In one instance, fans were able to raise enough money to buy a second tractor for a heavily injured Pakistan man who had spent his savings on a first one, but then wrecked it during an accident and could hardly afford to pay off his debts.

Towards the end of the event, Stanton called for one student volunteer to assist him in displaying a standard interview. He confessed his one and only rule with interviewing, to “never approach anyone from behind,” and disclosed that he looks for solo subjects who appear to have time on their hands. While his interviews may take up to 40 minutes, he never initially admits this when walking up to people, as he understands the busy life followed with NYC.

“There’s no harder place to stop people and ask them for their time than in New York City,” he said.

His questions range from ‘What is your biggest challenge in life right now?’ and ‘What do you feel most guilty about in life?’ to ‘What was the happiest moment of your life?,’ all of which may elicit a thought-provoking response.

However when Stanton asked the volunteer what he felt most guilty about, he replied, “I guess maybe cheating in some classes,” prompting the biggest reaction of the night. His response led Stanton to acknowledge the importance of honesty in his interviews, and how the sound of candor differentiates from a rehearsed answer.

“I appreciate when somebody gives an honest answer. Suddenly they become a human being, and not some soundbite,” he said.

In an interview with the Torch, Stanton said how if someone were to inquire on him, he would have no problem answering his own questions.

“Sometimes people ask me my own questions, and I’ll feel like it’s bad karma not to answer,” he said.

From the lecture, freshman Mijad enjoyed how Stanton was able to connect HONY to his personal self.

“It was a very personable lecture, so I feel like that was a testimony to who he is as a person and to reinforce his idea that HONY is a way to see the world through a different lens,” she said.

With the Torch, Stanton answered one of his own questions, what his biggest challenge is in life. He mentioned his ambition to focus on himself more in the upcoming future.

“To kind of create a space inside of my mind outside of Humans of New York,” he said. “To just kind of be Brandon.”

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Amanda Umpierrez, News Editor
News Editor:
Amanda is a senior Journalism major/Government and Politics minor who has been with the Torch for a year and a half. She intends to inform the St. John's community of important information on a local, national and international level.
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