Documentary, Photojournalism

John Conn – Signs of the Homeless

All images from the series Homeless/Signs © John Conn

John Conn spent a summer photographing the men and women living on the streets of Manhattan, New York. Each had a sign, and a very personal story. Thomas Cox reports.

“We all see the homeless – more or less – although we often do our best to look elsewhere,” says New York photographer John Conn. “I would walk past, look at their signs and then their faces and try to match up the two – seeing if they correlate.”

Framing the dual intimations of person and sign forms the basis of Conn’s 80-image series Homeless/Signs. There is no shortage of local subjects in New York; the amount of homeless people in the city recently reached the highest level since the 1930s Great Depression, with over 60,000 sleeping in shelters each night in February this year, according to charity Coalition for the Homeless.

“The written word is powerful, it projects an image: these signs are the way they project themselves,” says the 66-year-old. Based in the Bronx, the north borough of New York, Conn photographed the majority of the photo essay over a two-month period in the summer of 2013 in the nearby Manhattan borough. Some people appeared in a spot one day and were gone the next, but Conn’s familiarity with the area meant he came to know many of the faces featured in the series.

Although he has never been homeless himself, Conn grew up wandering the avenues of the Big Apple as a teenager in the late 1950s. “I was always in the street,” he says on a call from his home. “You know the movies where the kids are chasing each other, playing stick ball, spraying each other with fire hydrants, being chased by the cops, running over the roofs – that was me. I like to wander, and photography gave me a purpose to wander.”

His profession was not chosen at first, but doled out to him as a role to fulfil while he worked as a Marine in California in 1968-71: his Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). His first shoots documented President Nixon landing at the base in El Toro; Conn was given the job, he was told, because he was trusted not to try and murder the President.

At the time he was also training at nuclear, biological and chemical defence school – “one day you’re doing photography, the next you’re playing around with mustard gas,” he says.

After the Marines, Conn returned to New York for a BFA degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Following graduation, he sated his urge to roam by documenting far-flung corners of the world – including the apartheid in South Africa, everyday life in China, and villages in Kenya.

Photographing the homeless takes him to the limits of an objective observer. A balance is sought, for he must obtain their consent while trying to capture them without triggering some performative recognition.

“I would respect them by explaining what I was doing,” Conn says. “At times, they just want someone to talk to. I would listen and we would chat it up.” Conn also repaid them with a donation for allowing him to take photographs – “I can’t take something without giving something back.”

Out of the many he approached – there are 66 individuals represented in the series – not a single person refused to have their picture taken. Conn claims this is because he only approached those with signs. “Usually I find that, if they have a sign, they are a lot more coherent. They are reaching out, trying to grab your attention.

“People without signs really have no contact with their surroundings, or they have given up trying to make contact with other people.”

Taking pictures up-close with his Nikon D800 and 24-70mm wide-angle lens is one way of responding to these messages. Conn has certain principles, like not checking the pictures while shooting. “I never check the back of a camera – that shows you’re insecure about what you just did. When I shoot, I shoot it and I walk away.”

All his pictures are uncropped, meaning what is in the image –  hands, feet or faces –  was what originally drew him to the person. All the people he met, young and old, had a different story.

Some were totally addicted to drugs, others were looking for a bus fare home. The truth was not always clear, but the words held on a scrap of cardboard always echoed the same essential message: “HOMELESS, NEED LUCK”.

What’s Conn’s advice for passers-by? “Everyone has their story. Stop and talk to a homeless person.”

For more of Conn’s work see his website