Photographs by Elias Williams
Featuring: King Tito Love, Jay, V.I, Pete, The Vartist, El, Roy and Mike
Presented in partnership by United Photo Industries, NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and Visible Ink
New York Photographer Elias Williams was tasked this summer to capturing the creativity and leadership of men who have been harmed by gun violence who are all part of the OPEN DOORS arts and justice initiative is based at NYC Health + Hospitals/Coler, a long-term care facility on Roosevelt Island, where many of the members live and work. The members of the group use storytelling, hip-hop and spoken word to challenge audiences to combat the injustice that breeds violence in New York City neighborhoods.
The members of the organization, some of them known as “Reality Poets”, return to the neighborhoods where members grew up to inform young people about rarely considered consequences of gun violence, and to encourage them to become positive change makers.
This collaboration proudly produced and commissioned by United Photo Industries with support from the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, has been inspired by the Visible Ink program, a writing program for Memorial Sloan Kettering patients, and Open Doors in collaboration with NYC Health + Hospitals / Coler's Department of Therapeutic Recreation.
Ramon “King Tito Love” Cruz
I grew up in the ‘80s in Bushwick, when it was the murder capital. As a young guy, I went to a public school. My dad was a music teacher. I was at a gifted and talented school, where I played stand-up bass. I got into in the citywide orchestra, and we played Carnegie Hall.
Erasmus Hall High School specialized in music, but it was in a bad neighborhood. A guy there picked on me so bad. I had to leave and go back to my zone school. I started building a reputation. I wanted to protect everyone. I was a tough guy, convinced I could solve everybody’s problems. Later, I realized I’d had a good childhood, but back then, I wasn’t thinking straight.
When I was 22, I was shot in the leg. When I came out of the hospital, my mom said, “Stay home. You need to rest your leg.” But I didn’t listen. When I tried to get back at the guy who shot me, I was shot 7 times. For hours, I was on the floor, praying. I stayed alive, but I lost the use of both my legs.
With Open Doors, everything fell into place. Everything turned out amazing. I’m a songwriter, produce music, work as a motivational speaker, and I’m an assistant English teacher. I was also published twice this year, in the NYU journal and our book of poems, Wheeling and Healing. We just finished dropping our first album and I’m working on a Spanish album.
We need to educate people about the consequences of gun violence. Kids are left without a father. Kids never get to grow up. Life can be beautiful without violence! Stay focused and live your life, I tell them. Life is what you make of it. I was dying to die. Now I’m dying to live.
Andres “Jay” Molina
Growing up, I was athletic, in great shape. I played baseball and touch football with my friends, and every summer we went to Candlewood Lake. We swam and jumped into the lake from high rocks. I learned to conquer my fear.
I was wounded, but not by a gun. In 2014, I developed a rare lung condition that attacked my vital organs and left me paralyzed.
People here try to amp you up. They say you can do anything. And that’s how I feel in Open Doors. I fell in love with motion graphics and making films. I study hard. I can’t remember your phone number, but I remember how to put a 3D camera into Z space.
The body gets older, but we still have that little kid in us. Here in Open Doors at Coler, I’m pretty much excited about stuff all the time. That’s the way to be: learning and pushing ahead.
Peter “Pete” Yearwood
I had polio when I was a baby. I lived in Belize back then, but I was transferred to a hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, where they tried to fix my legs. If I had been cooperative, the results would have been different. But that’s the past. Now I’m trying harder, still aiming to move around on my crutches.
I moved to the states in 1971, when I was 15 years old. I spent a lot of time in the streets, doing stuff I wasn’t supposed to be doing, including drugs. I wasted time using, selling, and the craziness that comes with it. So I made up my mind and quit. I said, “Self, this is the day.” And I stopped doing all that. Now, I’m 27 years clean.
Before Open Doors, my life was hanging out and waiting, with nothing to do. Six months ago, I started coming into the meetings. When I saw what these guys were up to, I was blown away. They ask, what do you want to do with your life, what are your aspirations? Each of the guys might have had a certain skill set, but Open Doors lets us live our dreams.
Vincent “V.I.” Pierce
Before I came to Coler, I was living in Newburgh, New York, working at a grocery warehouse. I enjoyed spending my free time with my daughter, Nuatej, taking care of her and playing games. She’s eleven now and into ballet, tap, all that. She still lives in Newburgh, but I see her when I can.
Seven years ago, I was robbed at gunpoint. The bullet put me in a wheelchair, and I wound up at Coler. I joined Open Doors two years back, and I told them my ambition was to produce music. They found a great producer who came in every Friday to teach me.
Now I’m paying it forward. I got a grant to start a school at the Roosevelt Island Youth Center after school program. I’m going to work with kids who don’t have the money for studio time, teach them how to produce. We’re starting next month.
When I speak to kids, I tell them to stay in school, watch who you call your friend. I had good parents, but I chose poorly. I’m passionate about teaching kids how not to go in the direction I went.
Alhassan “El” Abuldattaah
My shooting was random. I was going to the store. The guys in a passing car thought I was someone else, and they shot me. It was 2015. I had just graduated from high school and gotten a job. I was trying to get into college. This happened, and it shattered everything. You get shot, your whole life changes.
Open Doors has taught me there’s a bigger purpose in life. This program opened my eyes. They helped me see the positive. My thing is computers. I’m tech savvy on a lot of different programs. Me and Var designed business cards, hats, and other things for Open Doors.
My message to the kids is: if you’re doing something you like that’s positive, keep at it. Don’t let anybody shame you. Just keep going.
Nobody Deserves This
Alhassan "EL" Abdulfattaah
Haven’t been home most the week
Just was working and relaxing with my lady in the sheets.
Harlem to the bronx was a big relief..
Finally home now..spoked to a friend on the phone
asked him if he wanna play video games and cheef.
His response best believe!
Now I’m out in the cold. Way to the store
gotta pick up the dutch papers or bambo. Crossing the street…
walking on the sidewalk
a car approached beside me
I looked at dude, and the dude stared back
Car parks I'm still walking continuing to the lobby
3 secs after that phone is in hand.
Bout make the call for the door 3 shots go off
Thought to myself this couldn't be a gunshot
RIGHT in my back and in spinal cord...
As I turn to see who? my body hit the floor
Raising my head and neck seeing the barrel wit' gunsmoke
shooter standing 2 feet away from me.
Let off another 3 more...(Boom,boom,boom)
Phone blew up in hand no one to call
Lady holding my bloody hand praying don’t know her from a hole in a wall
MTA man making the 911 call
Saying to myself it's not my time yet I still got more to see
Ambulance arrive putting me on the stretcher
Seeing all the eyes and stares didn’t make it no better
Went to the hospital
Friend came to visit
Told him look at my life now and see how I’m living
I was in jail at Rikers Island for drug possession. Eight days after my release, I got drunk, blacked out, and fell. I wound up in the hospital with a broken neck, paralyzed.
Before I joined Open Doors two years ago, I was doing nothing. Now I’m a motivational speaker and a reality poet. My most important message is stay away from drugs. Be a leader. Some of my friends didn’t make it to 25. Drugs destroy your families and relationships and can take your life.
I have a friend who moved from Harlem to Queens. Some guy offered him drugs when he was just a kid. He had enough sense to say no and keep it moving. I wish I’d had that much sense.
Growing up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, I played basketball, football, and handball, and hung out with friends. My mother was both mom and dad to me and my big sister. She worked two jobs. I saw what a struggle it was for a single mother to pay bills, put food on the table, and raise us kids.
On 1 a.m. on August 16th, 1999, I was in a car with my friend Max at the wheel. When we stopped at a red light, two men jumped out of the car behind us, raced toward us, and started shooting. I was hit five times and lived. One bullet struck Max, and he died. The hit was basically about revenge. Max had shot one of these guys two months earlier. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. When they came for Max, I got shot, too. At first, I didn’t want to go on living. Now, thanks to support from family and my friend Bambi, I look forward to the future.
In my spare time, I lift weights, read, and watch crime dramas. I listen to my favorite rappers: Jadakiss, Fabolous,Tupac, and Nas. I hang with my fellow OPEN DOORS members. Through OPEN DOORS, I'm an aspiring poet and motivational speaker. I hope to change young people’s lives through poetry and stories from my life.
By Any Means Necessary
They say I gotta ol soul they aint neva lie
And I view life thru a rebel’s eye
I don’t trust history bcuz I doubt the text
With my beard and specs I feel like malcolm x
By any means necessary Ima bout to flex
Disrespect my handle and see what happens next
They say the truth hurts and I say so be it
Ima kill em softly so they won’t even feel it
I’ma give birth to a whole new nation
And show how we all connect like a nurse to a patient
I’ma be that first one to pull to that station
So chill, come take a ride wit me as I talk to these racists
By any means necessary, i’m all up in ya faces
Even if that means i gotta catch a few cases
By any means necessary, i aint never lie
I aim for the heart Bcuz thats where the devil hides
They always try to label me as the troubled guy
but like I told you from the start, I view life thru a rebel’s eyes
By any means necessary…..
LeVar “Var” Lawrence
In 2005, I was shot in an argument over a dice game in the Fort Greene projects, where I lived. From the Hospital, I went to Goldwater for rehab. In 2013, they closed, and I came to Coler.
I got to know some of the Open Doors guys over the next few years. They kept trying to get me to come to the program, but I wasn’t for it. Then Jay said, “You’re not doing shit, Var. Come upstairs.” Over time, the group got better and better. Still, I never imagined that poetry would come out of it.
Open Doors let me reconnect with my art. I always knew how to draw anything. If I had chosen to stay in school, I could have been a tattoo artist or an architect. Instead, I chose to be a drug dealer. Once I got paralyzed like this, I started using my phone to manipulate pictures [as "The Vartist"], using more abstraction. I can still be an artist, just in a different way.
When we talk to people, I say what’s in my heart. I talk to kids as if they were my own. I see my own kids every week. I have three boys and three girls, aged 14 to 25, and I talk to them straight up. That way they can feel they can be straight up with somebody else.
Change of Heart
Levar “Var” Lawrence
Why couldn’t God just ease my pain and let me die
Have people at my funeral with tears in their eyes
Screaming out why
Why couldn’t he just open up the gates and let me in
I would’ve promised not to sin
I’d be up there passing around cups of gin
Asking the angels can I put just the tip in
Be up there having parties every night
Taking bets on who’s gonna win the fight
I’d have God looking at me shaking his head
While I’m laying with two of his angels in bed
Boy, would I have the time of my life
But then I’d start thinking about how I left my kids and my wife
Now I’m praying to God that he saves my life
So, I can be around to watch my kids grow
And teach my sons things about the streets that they don’t know
To make sure that my daughters don’t end up with the wrong man
Let them know what they’re worth and that they need a ring on their hand
Well, remember me, God?
The one that got shot in the Head?
I’ve changed my mind
Because what use am I to my kids if I was dead