Interviews are hard work. You approach a stranger and start asking them questions they might not want to answer. You need to ask the right questions, and sometimes ask twice. You need to smile and be friendly, regardless of their attitude or how nervous you are. It’s easy for them to reject you.
You may have heard of Humans of New York, and Brandon Stanton who runs the project. If you haven’t — get on that, like at New York City speeds. The short version is that Brandon roams the neighborhoods of New York City, takes thousands of photos a day and conducts short interviews. He even writes up epic stories based on his interactions. (Am I overselling?) Most of the time he posts a photo and a short quote.
If you’ve ever lived in NYC, you know how strange and distant everyone seems. You pass hundreds of people everyday without looking at their faces, much less stopping to greet them. There’s also no doubt that you can find someone interesting in a crowd, but will you approach them? Will you dismiss them?
What I find beautiful about Humans of New York’s portraits is how easy it is to believe that this person exists. They are a part of the city’s breath and movement. With every quote I read, there is one less stranger and one more human being. They could easily be a neighbor or someone you pass on the street but never noticed.
I’ve conducted interviews for my previous job as a reporter. The people I remember well are the ones who sparked something in me. The old ladies who spoke as if we were intimate friends. The people who said sweet and harsh and strange things, whether or not they ended up in a story.
Humans of New York’s latest posts follow an elderly woman, a widow, who invited Brandon into her home after their initial interaction. They first met when he took a photo of her in the rain and she shared something about her now-deceased husband. Obviously that alone was a great story but the fact that he’s now interacting with this stranger on a deeper level is wonderful.
This reminded me of when I met an elderly lady for a story about her husband who had passed away. I ended up basically hanging out in her home for several hours. Though I was only supposed to write about a medal her husband received posthumously, I couldn’t stop her when she told me about her children. I had to ask about how she met her husband and where they grew up. I could have followed her around for days while she pointed at black and white photos and old furniture.
What makes this project extraordinary is that we only get a quick glimpse and have to imagine the rest. But what really amazes me after seeing these photos is that, most of the time, Brandon can say goodbye after one short conversation.
It’s something special, and there are 2,277,195 Facebook fans who agree. I don’t think I’ll be walking away from HONY anytime soon.