Extremely Natural (Issue 644)

In which we learn more about overcoming fear of strangers and drawing people out in conversation.

Taking a deep breath, I locked up the office and crossed the dim-lit, yellow leaf-washed parking lot, crunching hidden acorns underfoot as I stepped. The earlier in the week, low, deep-hanging, October orange full moon had given way to a much smaller, brighter version by mid-Friday evening, and the air was decidedly colder.

I started my frost-covered car, shivered, and backed from my space, firing up the radio.

As I turned left across the commuter rail tracks and eased down Commonwealth Avenue, past the darkened store fronts, I gently tuned in to Jian Ghomeshi’s program, “Q,” broadcast on NPR, and an interview with Brandon Stanton about his blog-turned-book: Humans of New York.

During a three year period, beginning in 2010,  Brandon walked New York City streets with a camera, photographing people.  His original idea was a photographic census of New York City, photographing 10,000 NewYorkers, but he drifted. He began collecting quotes and short stories from the people he met and photographed.

Wasn’t it hard to approach strangers, Jian Ghomeshi asked.  Yes, at first, it was, Brandon responded.  When he started asking people whether he could take their pictures, two out of three said, “no.”  But after he’d been at it, he said, it got easier and more people said yes.

What changed, Jian asked?   Brandon replied, “I whittled my process down…. I would walk up to people, raise my voice an octave, and ask, ‘Would you mind if I took your picture?” After he simplified his process, he said, 2 out of three said, “yes.”

And what about the interviews, Jian asked. How did those work?

Brandon replied, “I always have about five or six intro questions but then I what I try to do as quickly as possible is to turn it so that it is no longer an interview but just a conversation. I ask a few questions to get things going, and then I just take a genuine curiosity as a person and just try to talk to the person… and then the person can sense you’re not looking to get anything from them, you’re just trying to have a conversation.”

How did you get strangers to reveal so much about themselves, Jian asked. Through questions, Brandon said, like, “What is your greatest struggle right now? If you could give one piece of advice, what would that be? … What was the happiest moment of your life? What was the saddest moment of your life? When were you most afraid?”

And how did all of this affect you, Jian asked. “Over the course of approaching 10,000 people, and just getting beaten down,” Brandon continued, “…I would say the main key is being calm, and being genuine…. I have no fear of approaching strangers…. Just through approaching people, being nervous, and conquering my fear, suddenly… I’m extremely natural.”


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