Grab some tissues / toilet paper / old socks - you're about to dehydrate yourself with tears.
Founded in 2010 by former bond trader Brandon Stanton, the original goal behind Humans of New York was to photograph 10,000 of the city’s residents. But somewhere along the line, the focus shifted – and the project became a means of telling strangers’ stories instead.
Over the course of six years, Brandon has photographed over 6000 people – meaning reading all the stories can be a pretty time consuming activity. But we waded through them nevertheless, just so we could present you with our pick of the best Humans of New York stories of all time.
(You can thank us later.)
‘My mother died when I was two years old, so it’s just me and my father. He’s been really angry with me lately. He’s always wanted me to be an engineer like him, but I switched my major to photography. He didn’t’ show any emotion when I told him. He always has a poker face. But I know that he’s angry from the little things. He never asks me to go shopping with him anymore. We used to go to the market together. He’d pick up a watermelon, inspect it, then would hand it to me for my opinion. It doesn’t sound like much but I really valued that time together. But once I changed my major, he stopped asking me to come along. But I think things are getting better. Recently I scored in the top 5th percentile on the University Entrance Exam for photography. When I told my father, he didn’t show any emotion. But the next day he asked me if I wanted to go shopping. And that made me so happy. Because it’s just the two of us. And I really, really, really, really love him.’
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Why do you want to be a fireman?”
“I said Ironman!”
‘I’ve been having nerve issues, and this past year it’s gotten so bad that it hurts too much for me to walk. It was completely unexpected. I’ve always been such an optimistic person, but now I’m fighting with depression. He’s doing everything he can to take my mind off of it. We’re not sure if I’m going to get better, but he’s planning a backpacking tour through Europe for when I do. And I told him that I didn’t think I could handle a visit to New York right now, but he told me that he’d push me around the whole city. And he has. And whenever I feel particularly down, he tells me that he’s not going anywhere, and how happy he is that he married me. Not long ago I had a particularly rough period, and when I was at one of my lowest moments, he asked if we could renew our vows.’
‘I see myself in my son. I know what it’s like to be in that teenage stage when you feel the need to prove yourself. One day when I was about his age, I was hanging out with some friends after school, and they wanted to go to the mall, but I had to go back to school and work on a project. A few hours later, they all ended up getting arrested for shoplifting. When I got home, my father was crying. He’d gotten a call from one of the boy’s fathers, who told him everything that happened. He told my dad: ‘Barak didn’t get arrested because he went to school.’ My dad dropped to his knees and started hugging me, and telling me that I’d made the smart decision, and that night he took me out to dinner. Today, every one of those friends is either dead or locked up.’
‘I’m going to find a job, goddamnit. Nobody is going to force me into retirement at 61. I moved to New York at the age of 35 with nothing but $1000 and a cat. I’ve reinvented myself once. And I can do it again.’
‘Who’s influenced you the most in your life?’
‘My principal, Ms. Lopez.’
‘How has she influenced you?’
‘When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.’
‘If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?’
‘When a wave comes, go deep.’
‘I think I’m going to need an explanation for that one.’
‘There’s three things you can do when life sends a wave at you. You can run from it, but then it’s going to catch up and knock you down. You can also fall back on your ego and try to stand your ground, but then it’s still going to clobber you. Or you can use it as an opportunity to go deep, and transform yourself to match the circumstances. And that’s how you get through the wave.’
‘This used to be my store. I put everything I had into it. I dropped out of school when I was 16, and by working two jobs, I managed to save about $90,000. I spent it all on this store. I was the bookkeeper, the buyer, and the sales guy. We even made a profit our first year. I think it was $213, but it was a profit. The happiest moment for me was when we were signing the papers and giving the landlord our deposit. Everything felt so real. The saddest moment was three years later, when that same man was standing over us while we packed out stuff, and he was telling us that we only had an hour to get out.’
‘They make it tough for working mothers. I don’t know why they have to schedule all of this stuff during the day. My first grader is playing a hammerhead shark in his class play–but it’s at 11 in the morning. They scheduled the Mother’s Day Tea on a Friday. But they put the Father’s Day Tea on a weekend, of course. The other day my first grader told me how lucky his friend was that his mom didn’t work and could come to everything. That one hurt a little.’
‘I knew a girl in high school that always complained about having anxiety. I used to make fun of her a little bit. It looked like nothing to me. So I assumed it was nothing. And I dealt with it by trying to convince her that it was nothing. I called her recently to apologize. I’ve had really bad anxiety ever since my father died. And it’s definitely not nothing. It’s the indescribable fear of nothing.’
‘I’m sixty-two now. I have three more years. I sold heroin. A lot of it. I had forty people working for me. If you were to ask me thirty-four years ago what it was going to be like in prison, I couldn’t have imagined. It’s been the same thing every day. Everyone I care about is gone. My mother passed. My father passed. My brother and sister. If I look backwards, I’ll lose my mind. I just try to keep busy and take it one day at a time. I’ve done every self-help program in the system. I’m the lead facilitator for the Men of Influence program. We teach behavioral skills, financial management, and entrepreneurship. In the five years that I’ve been in charge, we’ve graduated 250 people, and only one has come back to prison. I tell them: ‘Don’t let me be your future.’ And if I could say one thing to everyone who reads this interview. I want to apologize for the harm that I caused. If I could go back in time and correct it, I would. But that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the past 34 years. I grew up in the Baltimore projects. Everyone that I knew had nothing. I was trying to improve my life with the information that I had at the time. I grabbed the wrong rope. I’m sorry if I caused generations behind me to go astray. It wasn’t my intention to bring pain to the community. And I really think that when I’m released, I can be an asset to society.’
‘I work for a plumbing company. You probably wouldn’t guess by looking at me, but I talk about toilets all day long. I mainly work in sales. But if the toilets are broken, I’ll handle that too. You should see the reaction I get from a group of guys when I tell them that I’m here to fix the toilets.’
Visit Humans Of New York to see more stories like these.