Photographs by Otis Johnson

Inside Otis' room at "The Castle" on 140th Street and Morningside Drive, November 2015. Otis has been extremely unlucky with a roommate, he sleeps all day and stays up all night. Otis estimates he gets 2-3 hours of sleep on average.

The view outside the karate dojo in the Bronx, NY, where Otis teaches children self defense every Sunday afternoon, November 2015. When he was arrested in 1975, he was in the process of opening his own martial arts school in Harlem, NY.

An empty and boarded-up house on 141st street, between Broadway and Morningside Drive, November 2015. One of the houses on Otis’ radar for HEFT’s shelter.

Otis Johnson’s first self portrait, December 2015.

Gary Ashby and his sister in Gary’s apartment in Central Harlem, December 2015. Otis met Gary in 1979 and they have remained close ever since. Gary was released in 1980, but frequently visited until Otis was released in August 2014.

The stairs leading up to Exodus Transitional Community, in East Harlem. November 2015. Otis has received much from Exodus and gives back by speaking to youths about the in and outs of prison life.

Thanksgiving dinner at the Exodus Transitional Community in Harlem, New York. November 2015.

Inside the mosque Otis and Gary most often go to, on 113th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd, January 2016.

The boardwalk in Asbury Park, NJ on a cold Saturday afternoon in January 2016. Otis was born in the South, in Atlanta, GA, but his family moved north following many other southerners during the Great Migration soon after WWII.

A man walks down 125th Street in Harlem, dressed exactly like Otis when he was released from prison to Times Square. November 2015.

Otis often photographs the homeless on the streets of Harlem, NY. December 2015. He says he wants to gather evidence for his grant applications for HEFT Human Development Organization.

Uncle Robert, aged 82, in his home in Asbury Park, NJ. December 2015. Uncle Robert was one of Otis’ role models growing up.

A man is questioned by two NYPD officers in a subway station, February 2016. Otis was recently introduced to an activist group focusing on Stop & Frisk laws.

An elderly woman peeks out of her apartment window in Harlem, NY. December 2015. Otis says he remembers little from Harlem in the 1970’s, but recalled all the ladies yelling at children out their windows.

Photographs by - Otis Johnson.

Otis Johnson came out with the name James Williams and had to prove that he was Otis Johnson. It took him seven months to do that. He was sent to prison for a crime he did not do, from a place he lived in New Jersey, a young man in Asbury Park. Helping people that were poor, helpless, without money and food.

Statement by Otis Johnson

I go back to that issue because now I have had to deal with the issue of living in a place or a shelter without money and very little food. I called myself homeless, then after 6 months I was put in Fortune Society, affordable housing to develop myself, I learned I must work more, more so by myself to get right housing and pay rent at Fortune for my SSI, $733 a month with no job, but it’s all good. I am just beginning to understand I must help others that have to deal with this like I did and have done now for two years. Why I must ask, why does it take so long to get myself together after being in prison for forty years and told I don’t exist in the community or in prison. I see people mad because they can’t do better, no, I do not have the time to get mad as I put my time to get better and take pictures of the homeless because this could have happened to me. And by taking pictures I can maybe get the grants and support to open my own affordable housing. This has taken a lot out of me to the point, one part is saying “give up”, the other part is saying, “get better, help people get housing.” — So that’s what I’m doing while trying to find a place to stay. Other people before me have gotten housing that have no plan and are not planning to better themselves. I do not have a job but I do a lot of volunteer work at churches, colleges and also in the community, but I also look for grants to get buildings and to pay employees to help me open up affordable transitional housing for myself and other people like me.

I see people coming out of prisons and they live in the streets. You see mine and Kari’s photos, my photos of homeless people. We did the work to do better than just put people in shelters, living with 5-10 in a single room. As you see, I have maybe 2 pictures of women that are homeless and because they have no support housing and do not want say of that lack of support because it might take away the little support they might have.

Yes, I came out of prison, dressed in all brown like you see in the photos. Now you also see in the photos I have a suit on, to show people you can do better if you care about yourself and others. Discover for justice, is in my mind, in my heart — but you must want it. This must be what you want.

You see me in the streets and working in community meetings with people in offices, and photos of one part of my family which is my uncle. Prison did not stop me from giving up on myself. I did not do that crime that I did 40 years for, and I did not give up to get out of prison, I was told, if I said I did the crime, I would be released.

“Those who know honor but practice humility will be as a valley, receiving all the world’s into it.”

What do you practice to better yourself?

Be mindful that sometimes things are ahead and sometimes things are behind. Sometimes there will be power or strength, sometimes there will be weakness. Sometimes as a man I cry within so others that care about me will not cry at all. I hope all of you will understand that nothing is impossible unless you think its impossible.

Thank you for taking your time to read and look at what is before you today.

- Otis Johnson