New York Said
One Photographer’s Hunt for Messages Hidden in Plain Sight
Amon Focus has found a novel way to become reacquainted with his native city. After returning from his own self-exile to Mississippi and a few other places, Focus treasures the micro street art of New York, in all its rude, moody, and charming variety — he likens it to a sort of analog Twitter. He’s been slowly exploring the boroughs of his youth, collecting the messages he’s learned are hiding everywhere, in plain sight.
Emily von Hoffmann: Can you please describe your project, “New York Said,” for our readers? How did you first become taken with these “hidden messages” around the city?
Amon Focus: The concept of New York Said is to document the various messages that are hidden in plain site around New York before they are destroyed. I grew up in New York- South Jamaica, Queens, to be exact- and when I graduated high school, I hadn’t the foggiest idea to what I wanted to be when I grew up. So I left. I moved to Mississippi and a half dozen other places to try to figure it out. I when I returned to New York about 10+ years later, I arrived with a ton of video and photography experience. In 2009 I started my journey as a freelance photographer and video guy. In order to stay creatively inspired, I found myself scouring the streets of New York looking for cool fonts, architecture, color palettes, galleries and street art.
As I made my rounds throughout the city, I took pictures of everything that moved me. After a few years if walking the city, I made a photo book that was about 240 pages of the best stuff I captured at the time. For whatever reason, the book didn’t do too well. I can think about 7 good reasons why the book failed but now those reasons are my lessons that I keep in mind when I’m working on New York Said.
I sat the failed book on the shelf and forgot about it. A few months later I was cleaning up my office and stumbled upon it. As I flipped through it with fresh eyes, it felt like I had found something I’d created 100 years ago. I never realized how much time flew in the digital realm. Things that happened a week ago on a social media platform felt like they happened a year ago in real time. Anywho, as I was flipping through the book I’d created I noticed something. Amongst all the pictures I shot was this thin vein of gold content that I really never page attention to, but I would always capture it. The gold I was witnessing in the book were these messages hidden in plain sight around the city. Messages that just seemed to inspire, warn and offend. I compiled the best pictures I had of these messages and made a small book out of them.
When I got the book in the mail, I jokingly put it on Instagram and said “Hey, I am thinking about coming out with a book, a photo series and calling it New York Said.” Immediately people within the feed began to ask where they could buy it. I received so much positive feedback about the idea I thought maybe I should take this serious. After that I really began to scour the streets specifically looking for what New York had to say.
EvH: How do you go about discovering new sites to photograph for your project? Mostly by wandering, or some other means?
AF: To be honest, mostly by wandering aimlessly with a final destination in mind. I find new work for New York Said by meandering to specific place. If there is a new mural in Little Italy that I want to check out I’ll start my walk on the Lower East Side and just zig-zag aimlessly in the direction of the mural. This hike usually take about 6 to 8 hours depending on the weather.
EvH: How has your relationship with the city changed as a result of your exploration?
AF: Oh absolutely, it’s a lot healthier. When I was a youngin’ I was under the impression that the city was out to get me. I still kinda feel that way but these days I can maneuver my way in out of the various social facets that make up New York.
What the hell does that even mean? It basically means that I’ve learned to explore the city one step at a time at my pace seeking my preferred subject matter to capture. To me, that’s love, and that is pretty friggin’ healthy.
EvH: You’ve photographed sayings everywhere from Brooklyn to Harlem. Where in the city have you discovered the highest concentration of these sayings?
AF: The most talkative place in New York City in my opinion are the areas where a lot of art resides. So places like Bushwick, DUMBO, Long Island City, Harlem, The Heights, Chelsea, Williamsburg, Chinatown, SoHo, Lower East Side and Little Italy are the places where I’ve found the most street art and galleries.
EvH: The project aims, by elevating the “city’s most intimate thoughts, strict warnings and unwarranted motherly advice” to “shed light on the voices throughout the city that are often overlooked.” Do you ever try to picture the people who leave these thoughts & messages? Who do you imagine they are?
AF: That’s a good question. If I had to guess, I would think that the majority of the pictures that I’ve taken are written by regular people who have 9 to 5’s and who are not necessarily trying to be graffiti artists, they’re just feeling compelled to express a thought.
Sometimes, I fashion it to like analog twitter, where a person is waiting for the train and there’s a piece of paper and they just so happen to have a pen in their pocket so they’re just going to write something like “stop being a stereotype” or some like that. A lot of what I capture I don’t see written all over the city. It really seems to just be a one off thing and I just walked by just in time before it was destroyed.
EvH: Can you tell me about one or two of your favorite images or “sayings”? Which ones stand out most in your memory?
AF: The one that stands out the most is “Stop Taking My Book So Literally. –God” which was down in SoHo. It was too dark to take the picture. So I waited for cars to go by so their headlights could shine some light on it and I got the shot.
I took it with my phone and what I love most is that the statement transcends the actual quality of the image. Sure it’s grainy as hell but my brain looks right past the grain and it goes straight to the message. It’s appropriate and within context.
The other one that stands out is “Don’t become a dog for a few bones.” This one is one of my favorites because it’s one of those statements that means different things to different people. I’ve asked people what does it mean to them and they’ve responded, “I think it means don’t become a sell out” then I’ve asked other people and they’re like “It means don’t become a whore.” I love shots like that because they evoke a dialogue with only a few words. And to me that is what it’s all about.
EvH: Do you end up meeting people when taking these photos? If so, can you recall any particularly joyous, surprising, or odd interactions you had with people, or new friends you met?
AF: I meet people all the time. I’ll meet people in shops, restaurant owners and sometimes I’ll meet actual street artists.
On one of my walks around the city, I met a street artist named Jerkface. I walked up to him while he was painting a mural at the Bushwick Collective in Brooklyn and just started talking. I told him I was a creative and I liked making stuff with video. A year later he allowed me to capture behind the scenes videos as he made his way around the city painting walls, trucks and gates. The best part about working with Jerk is that he allows me to pick his brain while he completes his projects. I don’t care what I accomplish- I’m always willing to just humble myself and just learn.
EvH: Who or what are some of your inspirations (artists or creatives in any medium) for your photography?
AF: For inspiration, you can find me roaming around in outdoor street art galleries or contemporary art galleries, while listening to creative business audiobooks and podcasts. When I at home, I’m probably scrolling Tumblr, watching Vimeo Staff Picks or visiting a slew of creative websites I’ve aggregated through Feedly. I watch a lot of films and docs too… mostly docs.
The things that move me the most are films like Style Wars, which is definitely akin to the New York Said project because it’s a documentary about the history of graffiti. I’m also a big fan of documentary photographer Jamel Shabazz. I love the work of David LaChapelle, Gordon Parks and Bill Cunningham.
I’m literally inspired by tons of simple well done things too. I’m a sucker for oddly-shaped bottles and well designed business cards with unique paper stocks.