Amon Focus is a NYC-based photographer who began his passion project New York Said in May 2014. New York Said is a photo series that explores subtle messages hidden in plain sight around New York City. These photos span from Brooklyn to Harlem and exposes the city’s most intimate—and sometimes hilarious—musings by its anonymous authors. I first stumbled upon his work on Instagram and began following his journey on Kickstarter where he uploaded daily video journals to report his progress. It was there that I became fascinated by his story and wanted to learn more. Amon was my first interview so I was pretty nervous as I’d never formally interviewed anyone before, but he turned out to be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
He walked me through what it was like growing up in Queens, to barely scraping by in high school and transforming from a failing college student to graduating as Valedictorian. The adventures, setbacks and triumphs that led him to New York Said is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Not only is Amon a kind soul, but the amount of wisdom he shared was more than I expected to receive. We met at Stumptown, a coffee shop near Washington Square Park, and ended up spending 4 hours talking, having to move locations a few times. By the end of the night, I left with a new friendship and felt so inspired and revitalized by our time together.
It was definitely tough figuring out what parts of the interview to include because there were just so. many. things. we discussed, and if I included everything, it would end up being several pages long. Nonetheless, the interview showcases
the most powerful moments and lessons I took away from our conversation.
So tell me a little bit about how you grew up. What kind of kid were you?
Amon: I was a very, very mischievous kid. I would say the majority of what got me into trouble was probably something I said. I grew up in Southside Jamaica, Queens. I had a great childhood, lots of fun; I grew up in the time of the Power Glove, Gyromite, Nintendo and playing outside for real. Looking back now I can see that I was very creative but I don’t think I knew it because in the environment where I grew up there weren’t a lot of artists, just a lot of hard working people trying to figure things out on their own—then there was a lot of violence and what I would call ‘traps.’ The way I got around it—because I never sold drugs, never was involved in any violent acts or even arrested by the police—was that I was always a hustler and I loved to figure things out. After my parents divorced, my mother was a single parent taking care of me and my sisters, so I was the kid, in the 4th grade, who said, "Mom, I’m gonna be back, I’m gonna go get a job," and she said, "Ok, just come back before the sun goes down." I went around the corner where there was a barber shop, and it took all the courage in the world but I stood outside for like 10 mins thinking how am I gonna ask this guy? Then I had an idea: the floor was a mess so maybe I could sweep the floor. So I said, "Sir, I wanna sweep the hair off the floor, if you don’t mind, please." And he was like, "Where do you live and where is your mother? If you bring her and she says it’s ok, and you do your homework then yes, you can work here." So from 4th to about 7th grade, I was the kid sweeping up hair and cleaning in the barber shop for $30 a week. I was always just a hustler, like a make-it-happen kind of kid.
The six guys in the barber shop became his mentors (sort of like older brothers) which
helped to widen his perspective. He holds deep gratitude for their influential guidance and for helping him figure out his value
as a person.
The College Path
Can you walk me through how you became interested in the creative field?
Amon: Sure, so high school, I barely made it out; there was no more barber shop and at this point I was all about smoking weed, getting girls, and being a class clown. I literally had to cut a deal with my Math teacher and say, “If I get this grade on the state exam, will you just pass me?” And she said, “If you get THAT grade? Yeah, I’ll pass you.” Somehow, I studied really hard and I made it but I graduated with a 65 average, which was barely passing. After high school, I had no clue what I wanted to do. Mind you, I’d been playing with cameras and stuff but never in a million years did I think I could ever make a living out of it. I decided to leave Queens because given that I barely passed high school, I felt like I didn’t have very many options. I had no intentions of going to college so my choices were: getting a dead-end job, getting locked up or just getting killed. So I thought, let me get out of here and see what my options are.
Amon’s father lived in Mississippi and offered for him to come down to figure out his career path. Within the first 6 months, he got his first job at Subway as a Sandwich Artist. In search for a better income, he later secured a position at a poultry factory where he worked in the IQF (Individually Quartered and Frozen) area where he injected chicken breasts with water, phosphate, salt, and ice to expand the meat. Although thoughts of college never piqued Amon’s interest, his mother pushed for him to attend and even went as far as filling out all the paper work and financial aid. He ended up signing the papers and applying to Sullivan County Community College. Problem was, he still didn’t know what he wanted to study so he landed on the idea of being a chef.
Amon: I worked at a caterer during high school and I’d look at the chef and think, This guy just comes in and leaves early. He doesn’t do anything; I see him stirring a pot, I can do that. I could be a chef. That was my logic on how I chose my major. My first year had to be like a 0.5, I mean I almost got kicked out. My mentor, who was working at the college at the time, somehow pulled some strings and said, “I know this kid isn’t stupid. Just give him a second chance, I’ll talk to him."
His mentor suggested Media Arts, and that was when things took a drastic change. His GPA went from a 0.5 to a 3.2 and
that was when he knew he had found his niche.
Amon: I couldn’t get enough of it. It got to the point where I was that guy who was helping all the kids.
He received a Bachelors in Radio, Television and Film from University of Southern Mississippi. Soon after, he was courted by one of his friends who attended Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida. Amon became fascinated by the creative projects his friend shared with him. Not long after, he took the leap and enrolled into Full Sail to further pursue a career in the creative field. It was there that he tapped into his full creative potential.
Amon: Junior College was for my mother. Mississippi was for my father. Orlando, Florida: this one’s for me—I wanted see if I was smart, I wanted to push myself and see what my potential was. Full Sail had all of these awards of achievement like being Valedictorian, an award you can get called ‘Special Achievement’ where one person is chosen by the whole entire class, along with the staff, and once that person receives it, you’re able to give a speech to the entire student body. There was also another award for 100% attendance that you could get plus a bunch of others. So when I left for Florida, that’s what I had in mind. When I graduated that’s what I wanted, I wanted all those things. On graduation day, I had Special Achievement, I was Valedictorian, I had 100% attendance and a handful of other awards. It was just so crazy because I was the kid who barely made it out of high school.
After graduation, Amon landed a job at Full Sail traveling around the country and promoting their enrollment
program. He worked for a company called Promo Only in their Motion Graphics department until he was presented with an amazing offer from a travel marketing company in Sarasota, Florida. The company, Miles Media, was looking for someone to
shoot and edit video for tourism. Curious about the offer, Amon drove down to meet with the project manager. He was presented with the opportunity to travel throughout the state of Florida with a production crew to promote the tourism of the state. Everything would be paid for—accommodations and food included. It was an offer he
couldn’t refuse so he accepted the job. For the next two years he lived the life of a tourist and enjoyed his time traveling all
over the state of Florida while doing what he loved most. Despite building a successful creative career with Miles Media, a
life-changing trip to Panama made him question his entire path.
Moving Back home to NYC
Amon: A pinnacle moment for me was when a friend of mine invited me to go to Panama. So, I take this trip to Panama and while I was in the mountains, I hear a voice and it goes, You’ve been having a lot of fun doing what you’re doing, it’s been excellent, but it’s not it. You have a lot more work to do. You’re not even close. You’re not going to be able to do the things that you want to do given your current circumstances. So, enjoy the time that you have but it’s time to plan your exit strategy. It didn’t just end there. This small voice would bug me at night. It’s like there would be times where, back in Queens, I’d be at a party and all of a sudden, I’d have this feeling that I should leave the party—and I would—just to find out later it was shot up. That voice that told me to leave the party was the same voice that was telling me my time was done in Florida.
Shortly after the Panama trip, Amon moved back home to Queens and lived with his mother to figure out his next steps. After going on a few interviews with companies that didn't pique his interest, he received a phone call from Miles Media. The company had sold 19 videos to New Jersey and asked Amon if he was interested in shooting them. He accepted the job and used the money he earned to buy a new camera, laptop and software.
Amon: I only had one rule: I didn’t want to work for anybody. One of the reasons why I came back to New York is I wanted to be around people who were making things happen but who also intimidated me or who were better than me. I wouldn’t be able to do that in other markets. That’s why we pay a premium to stay here. I don’t plan to retire here, but I do plan to get busy and get as much work as I can possibly get done, and take advantage of all the opportunities I have while I'm here.
The Birth of New York Said
When you began shooting on your own time, how did it segway into New York Said?
Amon: I had been freelancing with Miles and various PR companies, then Miles started to pick up heavily and they began to send me all over the country. The reason I didn’t want to work for anyone was because I wanted my best 8 hours to belong to me. When I moved home, I fell back in love with New York. The first thing I wanted to do with my new chapter was master my camera and find my voice. I figured the only way I was going to find my voice was to work on my own projects. I wanna find my voice and my edit and then I want to get clients.
He pursued many different ideas from making youtube videos that featured interviews with artists and other miscellaneous projects before he landed on New York Said.
Amon: As I’m doing that I’m going through the city and I’m taking pictures of everything—art, architecture, etc.—and only doing it because I love it. I just wanted to capture this stuff while it’s still here. So then I captured so much that I was like, I’m gonna try my hand at making a book. So, I go to Blurb and I make a book. That book was about 240 pages, hard covered with the best paper and I thought, What am I going to call it? ’I love New York.’ Yeah, I’m gonna call it ‘I love New York!’ I picked the cheesiest title and when it was ready, I marketed it and...I only sold 4.
Oh wow! How many did you get printed?
Amon: They were on-demand, and I think because of that I didn’t go as hard as I could’ve. Also, when they’re on-demand, it makes the price point so high that the book was a hundred-something dollars. I was only getting $3 per sale. The cost of making the book was so expensive... it was a fail.
So that was the first book you released?
Amon: Yeah, that was the first one. So after walking around and scouring the city, I had captured so much stuff that I was like, this is my best book, these are my best 240 pictures. I mean, even having 4 people buy it was like damn, but I felt bad because I wouldn’t buy this. I mean I thought it was good, but I didn't think it was a hundred dollars good.
So after you sold only 4 books, how did you feel? And, how did you move forward from that point?
Amon: I felt defeated. I felt like alright, another bad idea that just didn’t work. I saw it all the way to completion and even at the finish line I wasn’t good enough. So I put it on the shelf and let it sit there. Months went by and I didn’t pay it any mind because I had forgotten about it, people had forgotten about it and I’d moved on. Then, one day I was clearing out my studio and came across it again. I just sat down and flipped through it and thought, This isn’t so bad, it’s not a bad book; I just skipped a lot of steps. I had that expectation of: if you build it, they will come. But, a lot was left out, like if you build it, you have to promote it, you have to let people know it exists, you have to sustain it, there’s a whole lot of when you build it, and then there’s 200 tasks to do, and then they will come. So, I had skipped over those 200 tasks, thinking, Ok, they’re gonna come because I built it. I didn’t think about what was in between; this is the stuff that nobody talks about—what’s in the middle is basically the cream in the oreo.
So how did you figure out those 200 steps?
Amon: As I’m flipping through the book, I realized it contained everything from pretzels, subway workers, pigeons taking a shit, it was everything, but amongst all of that, the consistency were these words that kept popping up, like messages. That gave me the idea to create a book based on those messages. So, I created a rough mock-up of the book and sent it away to the printer. The printer sent back a prototype that I was really happy with and I thought, These are all the things that New York said. So, I’m gonna call it ‘New York Said.’ Then I put all of these messages into a 40-page book and jokingly posted it on Instagram. I said, "Hey, I’m making this book called New York Said" ha ha ha and people responded with, “Where can I buy it?” From that point I began to investigate the price point for a soft cover book that’s 40-pages long with a singular idea. That simplification and that distilling made a humongous difference. So the first step was distilling this very general idea into a specific idea. I want my book to be everything New York: it’s frustrating, inspiring, funny, offensive, violent; it’s all of it, not just one thing. It’s a documentary project for me and when it began to make sense, it helped me figure out what steps I need to take because I started tying everything into New York Said.
You launched a Kickstarter for New York Said. Can you tell me about that experience?
Amon: I worked on my Kickstarter page for 6 months. 6. Months. I must’ve done it over like 3 times; I kid you not, I probably visited over 300 Kickstarter pages. I just looked at them every night; I was watching people’s videos, looking at what was done right and wrong, looking at successful and failed projects. Finally, it came to a point where I was like ok, it’s either time to shit or get off the pot. So, I took elements from pages I liked and put my mix on it. My video was done 3 months in but the reason it took so long was due to the graphics, the pricing, finding the vendors, who’s going to print t-shirts, who’s gonna print the prints, who’s printing the books and figuring out incentives for each price level. Then, I thought what can I do to engage the audience? I wanted to make a video a day but I had no ideas past that point, and then my girl said, "Why don’t you do 30 days, like a journal of your experience?"
I liked the idea so I went with it. I wanted it to seem like I was talking to you and I wanted it to feel like you knew me and in order to do that, I needed to relax. If you watched the first video, my anxiety was real and that night I laid in bed at night thinking, I started a Kickstarter and
only made 4 sales? I know I have 30 days, but I put in all of this work and only made 4 sales? But I just kept making the
videos, and every time I’d make a video, I’d make another sale. I had people rooting for me and writing me saying, "I wake up
to these!" When you do things not for profit and you do things not to get views, but you do them because you actually care
about it or want to watch it, it’s way more freeing and less pressure than forcing yourself to make a viral video.
I enjoyed Amon’s Kickstarter videos because it contained a type of rawness and behind-the-scenes quality to them. The content was relatable and the journal format was enough to entice the audience to check on Amon’s progress every day. Amon’s humble nature and humor made you connect with him through the screen. At times, I found myself getting excited for his successes and being moved by his struggles. The human quality of those videos are what caused people to invest in his project—and him. In the end, he exceeded his Kickstarter goal.
Where are you at this point of the New York Said journey?
Amon: I’ve pretty much sold out of volume one of New York Said. Sometimes I’d sell 1, sometimes I’d sell 7, sometimes people would call me up and say, "Hey, I wanna buy 25." But I’m done with the 500 books I printed. It took me a year to sell 500. I gave away a lot, but I pretty much broke even. Now it's all about New York Said Volume Two.
What’s the end-goal for New York Said?
Amon: The end goal for New York Said is to be a true-to-heart coffee table book. My goal is to get to an official internationally and nationally distributed coffee table book, signed by a major publishing company. How am I gonna do it? By Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4, and building an audience along the way, kinda like building a resume for the project. So every event and kickstarter is a chunk of accomplishment that has been done and as it begins to grow, I wanna try to get it into Ace Hotel and Anthropologie and other high-end boutiques and create a stock so when you go to my website you’ll be able to see all the locations where it’s stocked. I’m giving myself a goal of four years to get published. I basically signed a contract with myself to publish four books and I gotta make sure that I do it. Even though I failed with the first book, I Love New York, I still finished it and failed. I didn’t fail because I gave up, there’s a huge difference. I would rather fail by following through and thinking. "I’m not good enough" than not finishing and never knowing or not even getting started.
Whenever you have any doubts, or if you have doubters, how do you deal with that? How do you work past it? Do you have haters?
Amon: I’m sure I do. But they’re not as pronounced as say, if I were some kind of pop singer. My mentor always told me the best revenge is living successfully. It makes me work harder. My life is my life so I deal with haters and doubters by continuing to do what I want to do because they don’t have a dime in my quarter.
How do you want to be remembered?
Amon: That’s a really good question because I think about it a lot. I want to be impactful in a positive way and be remembered as somebody who gave; that could be in my work, my time, my resources.
Seeing past stereotypes: Everybody is different. Recently, I sat on a boat in Kentucky along the borderline of Indiana, in an area where it’s most populated with hate groups, with a guy who I could almost guess was part of the militia—and he could’ve been a Republican too, who knows. We went to a lake, he canoed me out, I got my shots and we just talked as two men. He didn’t talk to me like I was a kid from Southside and I didn’t talk to him like he was a guy from Kentucky. We just conversed about things that we were sincerely interested in. It wasn’t about changing him or not appreciating him for what he was and he wasn’t trying to push anything on me; we were just two guys, from two different worlds who worked together to make something happen. And we did. We had a very respectful hand shake and went about our business. I’m not gonna let anybody define my reality or anybody’s agenda influence how I make a decision.
Being a creative: I’ve learned as a creative that you have to be out there on your own. To me, I can’t be coat-tailing somebody, so even though I’m shooting a documentary about an artist, I’m not coat-tailing him. I’m capturing his life so I can showcase it, but I’m not in it for whatever he can give me—shows he can get me into or credits he can give me—that’s not the reason, those are not benefits at all. I’m not even in it for the people he can introduce me to. My only objective and goal is to tell a cool story and whatever comes after that will be surprises.
Doing what you love: My bank account is hilarious at the moment as far as how I’m looking to pay my bills. But, I know the nature of being a
creative is that it ebbs and flows, there are peaks and valleys, and just because I’m in a valley it doesn’t mean that I’m not on
an upswing of a peak. I just know the nature of it is that I’m not sad that I’m in a valley, and I’m not optimistic about the peak. The things I do in a day I really enjoy, and I’m using tools that I enjoy using and the only time it ever becomes work is when somebody makes things more complicated than they really need to be. I live a very wealthy life that doesn’t require money if that makes sense.