If there were a contest to see who could collect and preserve the most personal, meaningful stories, Brandon Stanton, founder of Humans of New York, would be winning it. Not that that’s what he set out to do. But looking carefully at how Stanton conducts his interviews provides insight for those of us who want to elicit the same type of meaningful stories from our family members.
If you’re not aware of him or his project, here’s a snippet from the About section of his Facebook page:
Humans of New York began as a photography project in 2010. The initial goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street and create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants. Somewhere along the way, I began to interview my subjects in addition to photographing them. And alongside their portraits, I’d include quotes and short stories from their lives.
As Stanton’s projects have evolved into books, films, foreign countries, and series featuring special interest populations, he’s demonstrated an incredible talent for eliciting not just stories, but meaningful, emotionally vulnerable takeaways. Often, his subjects’ thoughts haunt us long after we gaze at the image. Usually, the quote or story reveals something about what makes that person unique.
And there’s a lot we can learn about preserving meaningful stories from that.
Brandon Stanton at RootsTech 2018: How He Collects Meaningful Stories
During his keynote at RootsTech, Brandon Stanton described himself as “taking the scenic route through life.” His model is deceptively simple. He stops, takes a photograph of a person, and learns their stories. He’s taken over 10,000 photos and heard 10,000 photos. He’s gained 25 million followers.
In an interview following his keynote, I asked him what he feels his work can teach family historians conducting oral history interviews.
His recommendations contrast with traditional recommendations of prepare, prepare, prepare. Stanton used to have some stock questions. He now knows them so well that he seldom uses them. But for him, it’s not about ticking off the answers. It’s connecting.
Though he doesn’t object to a list of questions as a loose guideline, he thinks it can get in the way of the interview. The list becomes the focus instead of the interviewee.
The list or even mental agenda can interfere with “the lean,” as Stanton calls it. We fail to lean forward in curiosity. We don’t demonstrate a posture which tells the speaker that we’re not only listening; we’re engaged. (As we looked at in Listening Skills and Conversations, it’s one of many things that get in the way of emotional listening.)
Why Do People Give Meaningful, Hard-to-Say, Emotionally Loaded Answers When They Don’t Have to
He often asks questions that make his interviewees a little uncomfortable. Although he always tells them they are free not to answer, most do.
Why? Stanton thinks it has a lot to do with validation. It’s something that happens during his hour-long interviews. That thing that they’ve been keeping inside of themselves is a story that yearns for a caring audience. It starts with the interviewer, but we, the audience also play a part in that.
Engaged listening (and reading) brings about that affirmation that his subjects’ feelings and experience are not only worth listening to, they have something to teach the rest of us.
The Interviewer’s Gestalt
Without a doubt, part of Stanton’s success as an interviewer comes from his affable, humble bearing. And it seems genuine. Asked how he tells his own stories, Brandon grinned shyly. “It’s a point of pride, that I have 25 million followers by shining a light on others rather than talking about myself.”
He also makes himself approachable. Even as a keynote at RootsTech, he wore a casual shirt and jeans. New York Times’ Julie Bosman, who accompanied Stanton on a few interviews in 2013, made a similar observation:
He does everything he can to warm up his potential subjects, wearing a backward baseball cap, gray hoodie, and New Balance sneakers to look casual. When he approaches a stranger, he hunches over or squats down, sometimes sprawling his 6-foot-4 frame on the sidewalk.
Family story collectors rarely think of themselves as threatening. But perhaps we should. If we come in with too much pomp and circumstance—whether it’s via our enthusiasm or diddling with our technology, we can interfere with the natural conversation that elicits meaningful stories. In addition, when we know the subject, it’s hard to pull on a persona of non-judgement. If we’re interviewing family members, they know where we stand on issues. They can project how we’ll react.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t comport ourselves as non-judgmentally as possible, though. If anything, it makes it more important.
Brandon Stanton: The Average Story or Incredible Story
 Interview with Brandon Stanton, March 1, 2018, Salt Lake City, Utah