Feature Series

NYC Hometown Heroes: John Saponara


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  The first couple days, when I wasn't working and hadn't been delivering stuff, I'd be watching the news or looking on social media, and it builds itself up. You worry about stuff rather than finding a cause. Finding a purpose makes things more palatable and easier to get through.   

-- John Saponara, photographer
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April 21, 2020 | Kirsten Midura, Engines for Change

While NYC is replete with heroes in the medical field, tackling the battle against COVID-19 head on, the local moto community has also stepped up with some creative and resourceful ways to help out: production and transportation of medical supplies – masks, hand sanitizer; rides for medical support staff; and even photojournalistic documentation of the city’s efforts.

We’ve partnered with Kirsten Midura from Engines for Change to talk with a few of these local moto icons about what they’re doing for the city, how they’ve been personally affected by the pandemic, and, literally, what keeps them going day to day.

Motorcyclist John Saponara has been outdoing himself in the midst of this pandemic. The Brooklyn-based photographer has always been an avid volunteer, working with numerous local, grassroots community organizations. But while COVID-19 is taking its toll on New York City, John has been working to fabricate face shields, deliver supplies, document the pandemic through his own lens, and continually provide support to his friends, family, and everyone in his community. We recently had the honor of speaking with John and getting some insight into all the relief work that he has been doing.


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1) First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. To start, tell me a bit about yourself, what you usually do for work, and how did you come to be in NYC?

Let’s see ... I’m a photographer mainly, working in the photo industry. Obviously it's been pretty hard hit – everybody has. I’ve lived in New York for 20 years. Before that, I grew up just outside of the city, and obviously consider myself a New Yorker. I call Brooklyn home; this is where my people are at.

2) What makes NYC special for you?

I guess for me it’s always been about the communities, whether it's the motorcycling community or people in my neighborhood, people you see every day walking around, people in the shops. Whenever something like this has happened – Superstorm Sandy or 9/11 or the Blackout – people come together. A lot of people, when something goes wrong in New York, they start to run or worry that something bad is going to happen. I never really worry because I know that in times like this, that’s when New Yorkers shine. That really comes through at this point.

3) Tell us a little about your chosen causes during this pandemic. What are the projects that you have been working on?

Well, [I’m doing] a couple things. I started with Motoveli and Masks for Docs first, and I am also making face shields during the day.

Masks for Docs basically finds people who have supplies – whether it's individuals or factories or people who made their own makeshift, 3D-printed masks and shields – and connects them with medical personnel at hospitals: doctors, nurses, whoever needs them at these facilities. I picked Motoveli because it was a way to effect change and make a difference really quickly: to cut through the red tape and not have to go through hoops to do something. I know Ryan, I know what he's about and how he's going to do it. And from point A to point B, there's not too much red tape in the middle to muck it up. It's like, we have a mission, we have something to do, we pick it up, it's delivered. We're the messengers, and that's important to me.

Masks for Docs is really great because they're doing all the vetting. They have their Slack channels and their networks to discuss which facility needs [supplies] the most, where the urgency is. So, they can figure that part out, and we facilitate the A to B.

one of the first motoveli masks for docs missions in late march | john saponara
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  I picked Motoveli because it was a way to effect change and make a difference really quickly: to cut through the red tape and not have to go through hoops to do something. I know Ryan, I know what he's about and how he's going to do it. And from point A to point B, there's not too much red tape in the middle to muck it up.   

-- John Saponara, photographer
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4) Can you just describe to me what the experience was like going on the Masks for Docs deliveries that you've done?

Yeah, I've done a few – three or four – with pickups and drop-offs. With the night ones we've done, it's really exhilarating. But also, you're traveling through a city that's empty, and there's no one on the road. It's almost surreal – it is surreal. It gives you a sense of purpose and an intensity that you're actually doing something, you're making a difference. Whether it's the people you're picking up from or the people that you're dropping off to – the doctors and the medical people – [it's great] to see the joy or the happiness ... just to see them be amazed that this is happening. We're showing up at their house and loading up a bunch of PPE into the doctor's trunk in the dark of night, and you don't know what time it is. It's kind of wild.

Even the day run last week, it was a bunch of us. We went to do three or four runs, with the last pick up in Staten Island. When we came back, I forget the total numbers, but we had like 70 face shields, 30 masks, and a bunch of other stuff – one person had a box on the back of their motorcycle, and we made our way back to the doctor who was taking it to Mount Sinai. It's great, and Ryan from Motoveli is a really great team leader. He is really good at inspiring us and giving us a good pat on the back when it's all done.

5) Tell us about the work at Bednark what's happening there.

So, two weeks ago – well, more than two weeks ago now – my friend Christina Davis got a call for work with a friend of hers. Her friend works with Bednark, which is an industrial design firm here in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They do things like installations for events, in-store buildouts, displays, projects for TV and movies, things like that. And then [another] of the companies, Duggal, is a photo and display company with large photo printing and billboards. The two of them, plus a couple other companies here in the Navy Yard, have come together to figure out how to keep their employees working. They made a plan to make face shields, and they started with a temporary contract from the city to see if they could do it.

That first day I was here, we made something like 11,000 face shields. That was low because we were all figuring out how to make these things and getting all the bugs out. But now we’ve made over half a million masks, with a high of 34,000 in a day. The city keeps extending the contract. Hopefully, for other places that have a need [for PPE], we will try and get this stuff out there. We might start making other products, too.

It's been interesting because, by day, I've been doing work with Bednark and Duggal studios in the Brooklyn Navy Yard with the face shields, and by nights and weekends I'm delivering the PPE, or picking stuff up at a certain point and holding on to it while we figure out where it's going to go. I've actually been busier now than I've ever been.

6) Is there any connection between the two organizations? How are these face Shields being delivered to the people?

There’s not really any connection. The face shields are under a city contract. From my understanding, city contracts have to be done a certain way; if it's not volunteer based, people have to be paid city employees, and there are certain guidelines that need to be followed. [The face shields] are all being delivered by Bednark and Duggal. Both have delivery infrastructure because they're huge manufacturers and they deliver large stuff all the time. So, they have trucks that come in and out regularly. [The two projects are] not really connected in any way; the only connection really is that I'm doing both.

images from saponara's 'until further notice' series
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  I started photographing everyone not only for myself – as a photographer and somebody who loves to see these things and think about them – but also for posterity, for history's sake. It's a moment in time that should be captured, and this is one of the few places in this city that's actually doing something like this.   

-- John Saponara, photographer
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7) And tell us about the photo series that you're doing that's coming out of this.

So, I started this photo series called ‘Until Further Notice’. The first day I actually got [to Bednark Studios], one of the people on my team was named Jess. She's a muralist by day, so her pants are covered in paint from her job. I saw those pants and I was like, this is interesting because it tells the story of what she used to do, and now she's doing this; Now she's stickering and putting things on face shields, she's wearing this face mask. She was actually the first person that I photographed, and it got me thinking. I thought [the photo series] would be interesting because our N95 masks that we wear while working give everybody anonymity. We're all workers for a unified cause, trying to do something, but we're all individuals at the same time underneath. It was interesting to see that.

I started photographing everyone not only for myself – as a photographer and somebody who loves to see these things and think about them – but also for posterity, for history's sake. It's a moment in time that should be captured, and this is one of the few places in this city that's actually doing something like this.

I will say one thing about [the name of the series]: In the early days, when we were still walking around and people were still hanging out, things had just started closing down. I was photographing down by Brooklyn Bridge Park, and there's the carousel. It had a sign in the window saying, 'Closed until further notice'. Now it's just interesting to see how many places will post a sign like that, a museum or a website. It's just a theme that's overarching; Everything is 'until further notice'. That's where [the name] came from.

It's kind of taken on a life of its own. People really love it; it's gotten shared all over this place. Karlie Kloss (@karliekloss), who’s a supermodel I didn't know about until two days ago, shared it on her social media. It's just been interesting to see where it ends up, what people think about it.

What’s been interesting about this combination of projects is that so many people have seen both things because I've documented both. A lot of people have been reaching out to me, and it's been published in a few places. People will reach out saying, “How can I help?” They're trying to facilitate masks going to their friends who are working at hospitals, and it's created so many different connections. A friend of mine runs a catering company that caters to photo shoots. They're obviously not working right now, and they wanted to get involved and help hospitals and hospital workers. I posted something about it, and all these people from hospitals started reaching out to me. The Chef’s Agency is now delivering to hospital workers, catering lunches and meals. So, it’s unintended, but it's a happy benefit from all this.

8) So, what are the ways that people can contribute? And why are motorcycles a good mode of assistance?

Obviously with Masks for Docs, they can help either by trying to facilitate some donations of PPE, or they can volunteer to deliver stuff. Get on the list, and try to help out.

I think the moto community is great because they can get around. They can get places quickly, they can split up, they can break things down. There’s not an issue of parking or getting to places that a car can't get to. You don't have these huge cars that try to double-park, especially if you're going to a hospital.

I also think showing up to a place with a big van full of medical equipment might draw some attention. Sadly, those are things that you have to think about. These things have value, so if you throw [PPE] in a bag and deliver it by motorcycle, it's incognito. No one really knows what you're doing. So, I think for the motorcycle community, they can help that way.

I also think they can help with donations. They can help by looking within their own community. Every community needs help, whether it's senior citizens, delivering meals. It doesn't necessarily have to be done by motorcycle; There are so many places to volunteer and be out there ... [doing] something like shopping. I think there's a lot that can be done.

john saponara at bednark producing face shields
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  When I do listen to the radio or any sort of news, I try to use sources that are level-headed and not too bombastic, because then everything gets blown out of proportion and you get your nerves up. I listen to NPR while I'm working at the factory. We listen to them talk about what's happening in a level-headed way, and it's actually reassuring rather than frightening.   

-- John Saponara, photographer
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9) In the midst of this crisis, what do you do to keep positive every day?

I try not to think too much. If I weren’t so busy, I would be going stir-crazy. The first couple days, when I wasn't working and hadn't been delivering stuff, I'd be watching the news or looking on social media, and it builds itself up. You worry about stuff rather than finding a cause. Finding a purpose makes things more palatable and easier to get through. With the limited amount of time I have, I’ve been trying to find some downtime to meditate, to read, to do some yoga on my own. Online classes might be available here and there.

Something else I did – as an artist – I tried selling some prints. So, anything that comes in, I'm giving a percentage to local restaurant and bar workers, who more than anything have been affected. I’m trying to help with a lot of GoFundMe setups. I've gone through a few so far and I have a few more print sales that I'll donate as that happens.

So, I try not to focus on it too much. To be honest, I've been so tired most days I don't have much time to think. When I do listen to the radio or any sort of news, I try to use sources that are level-headed and not too bombastic, because then everything gets blown out of proportion and you get your nerves up. I listen to NPR while I'm working at the factory. We listen to them talk about what's happening in a level-headed way, and it's actually reassuring rather than frightening.

10) If you're looking at that light at the end of the tunnel, what's the first thing you want to do once this crisis subsides?

Go see my kids. I haven't seen them in … I think it's over a month. They just had a birthday, so I want to celebrate with them. But aside from that, I want to go somewhere with friends and celebrate and hug and cheers some drinks to making it through this.

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John is continuing to work on all these projects and encourages people to get involved in their own communities where possible and safe.

Motoveli has since announced that they will no longer be dispatching riders directly; According to their website, “Motoveli is no longer pursuing a ‘reactive delivery’ model. This is because supply chains are being set up to handle more volume.” However, if you still want to help this cause, you can visit their website at motoveli.com for more information.

For those who are looking for work making face shields, you can contact Bednark at jobs@bednarkinc.com. Please note that there may be a waitlist.

If you are interested in purchasing a John Saponara original print, you can visit his website at johnsaponara.com. A portion of the proceeds will go toward bar and restaurant workers who are currently out of a job. You can also view Saponara's ongoing photo project 'Until Further Notice' on his website, or follow him on Instagram: @johnsaponara.

And if you are interested in volunteering to deliver PPE and other supplies, you can reach out to Engines for Change at enginesforchange.org.

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Comments

  • 👏🏻👏🏻

    @a.t.martinez
  • 🙌🙌🙌

    @doingthethings
  • We are blessed to have him with us!

    Vincent Nicolai
  • John is amazing! He’s been such an inspiration and he always leads by example ♥️

    @powers.of.10

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