Humans of New Haven (HOHN) is a new City Desk series inspired by Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York. The series will include profiles of New Haven residents with a picture taken of them the same day. 

- Sophie Wang, Tenzin Jorden, and Brian Zhang
Idea by Sophie Wang

Find my non-HOHN profiles of people and restaurants on my Yale Daily News author archive!

Photos by Tenzin Jorden and Brian Zhang

Looking through photographer Roderick Topping’s lens

When Roderick Topping told me that his photography was quiet, I tried to picture what a “quiet photo” would look like. The first thing that came to mind was a black-and-white photo of the Cross Campus courtyard before us, then in spring break hibernation mode and devoid of laughing students carrying picnic blankets and New Yorker tote bags.

“I’ve always been kind of shy about my photography, and it’s only in the past few years that I’ve gotten out there to show people,” Topping said, showing me his Instagram grid.

Topping, a New Haven resident since 1988, first picked up a camera when he was 10 years old. After graduating from Skidmore College with a degree in art, he worked several photography jobs before becoming a freelance artist dedicated to telling the stories of his “complicated home,” capturing the city’s “rich architectural landscape” and exploring the “amazing diverse population of humans” in the Elm City. New Haven has evolved incredibly before his eyes in the past 30 years — for both the good and bad, according to Topping. While crime rates are down, he reminisces on the days where there was a stronger local scene, when people did not yet have cell phones. The late nights he would spend chatting with friends at bars and the outdoor adventures that locals grew up having became less frequent as time passed, he said.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Topping has found himself working on several projects that have taken him from Downtown to Yale, from neighborhood to neighborhood and from one abandoned storefront to another. His recent “Strange Times: Downtown New Haven in the COVID Era,” exhibit in the New Haven Museum was a collection of primarily black-and-white photographs of the city during the peak years of the pandemic, featuring snapshots of a trying and changed cityscape. He said that more important than tying together the purpose and content of his work under a single overarching theme is this hope that others will look back on his photos and remember history — that they will remember “what was” of the city they live in. According to Topping, every photo and image that he takes carefully considers the use of shadow, lighting and geometry. These visual elements form part of his journey to bring alive every aspect of the subject for the audience to see, hold onto and reflect on.

Moving forward, he is excited to “get out in the world more” and continue his work, which he described as a form of journalism.

“I still don’t have [the city] figured out,” he said, as we walked out of the courtyard. “I’ll let you know when I figure it out.” When Topping isn’t sipping coffee and exploring new reads at Book Trader Cafe, he can be found taking long walks through the city, his iPhone in hand and a Sony RX100 camera hanging over his chest.

The “Strange Times” exhibit ran at the New Haven Museum from Oct.13, 2021 through March 25, 2022, but several photographs of the collection can still be found on Topping’s Instagram page.

On the word “complex” with Elsa Holahan

Elsa Holahan’s home is “a lot going on in a little space.” It is a “cultivation of the arts” and a hotspot for “politics,” brimming with people connected to each other in the biggest of ways and the smallest of ways. Her home is “beautiful,” and her home represents many things, but today, “justice isn’t always” one of them, she said.

On March 20, the fatal shooting of fellow Hillhouse High School classmate Keiron Jones rocked Holahan’s life, as it did for many other New Haveners. Born and raised in the city, the high school junior spoke to the emotional dichotomy that comes with living here and being a part of the city’s public school system. For her, the one word that will always trail in her mind when she thinks of New Haven is “complex.”

On one side of this “complex,” Holahan finds a community that has grown to embrace the importance of recreational livelihood and opportunity, commenting on how the artistic landscape of the city has evolved over the years. She thanks local spaces for bringing folks together through entertainment and reminds her community to look for freedom in outlets that people do not normally consider to be art, such as newspapers. For Holahan herself, the arts evoke memories of walking home from school as she listens to podcasts about the 1969 Black Panther Trials in the city. They remind her of the visceral escape from school that she gets from playing cello with the Neighborhood Music School or of sharing her favorite posts from New Haven’s The Daily Nutmeg with friends and family.

More often than not, however, “complex” means unmet progress, Holahan said. It means all the work that still needs to be done. Growing up witnessing violence and inequality everywhere from street corners to classrooms, Holahan has put social advocacy at the forefront of her story and plans to make New Haven a safer place for those who call it home. Her work at the newly reopened Dixwell Q-House this past year taught her that there is strength in community, in a powerful and informed youth that continues to break down the walls of today while uplifting the older generations. Every life deserves a possibility to win, to survive and be beautiful, she said.

“It’s always hard to share a community with someone and have them go [and] leave you,” she said, remembering sharing an English class with the late Keiron Jones in freshman year. “There was no response from the administration at Hillhouse… [and] that was tragic. We [need] to stray away from violence.”

For Holahan, to fight is to remember stories like Jones’, the stories of the local community and of people of color. This fight of remembrance is one that will forever pervade her New Haven journey and her thoughts, whether it is during conversations with her mom about the city’s angular relationship with Yale or while waiting in line at Ninth Square Market Too Caribbean Style ordering her favorite vegan Jamaican dish.

Since October 2020, Elsa Holahan has served as the youth director on the Q-House Advisory Board, managing the center’s social media and its connections to LEAP, or Leadership, Education and Athletics in Partnership.

Charting the Skies with Ernest Saunders III

Fifty-two-year-old Ernest Saunders III has seen the world from both its hollowing depths and soaring heights — literally and metaphorically. As a young boy, his biggest dream was to fly and cruise the skies with the Air Force. Today, Saunders is a FAA-certified remote pilot, sending his DJI Mavic Air 2 drone hundreds of feet into the air and watching New Haven from a bird’s eye view.

But the decades in between were not all blue skies and freedom calls from the top of skyscrapers. Born to a white mother and Black father in the 60s, Saunders was thrust into a world of only this or that and “never in between” the moment he opened his eyes. After his parents passed away when he was a teenager, Saunders found himself juggled between cities and family members who never fully accepted him.

“I just survived. And I survived. And nobody ever found me,” he said. “I had never really [had] a place to call home, and never had my own apartment until just a couple of years ago, until I was 48.” He crashed on couches and slept in subway stations, watching as those around him left — wondering if they had given up on him. Holding back tears as his girlfriend died from cancer. Trying to recommunicate with a body that was sexually abused countless times by strangers, praying it would come back alive. Living paycheck to paycheck in a truck while working Dunkin’ Donuts and other small jobs.

Everything changed when a director at the Columbus House homeless shelter approached him one day with a detailed plan to get him into an apartment, asking if he would also be willing to consider therapy. It all started with a handshake and a hug, Saunders remembers, saying that at that point, he had been camping out at the shelter for two winters and two summers. Several sessions later, he was diagnosed with PTSD, OCD, Tourette’s Syndrome and bipolarity. It was a piece of news that he embraced with gratitude, however. Rather than beating himself up over his own psychological trauma, he accepted that the past was “unchangeable,” that the only thing he could do for himself was to “move forward” while keeping in mind his “history.”

“I started realizing that if I just gave myself a break and started to forgive myself, I [would] come out of that shell,” he said, showing off a fitness wristband that he uses to monitor his symptoms and heart rate. “I was able to come out of extreme isolation.”

It was “communication” — the “little skills like talking … [and being] inquisitive” — that saved his life. But this “strategy” doesn’t always work with everyone on the streets, he said, bringing up some fundamental problems with the way that the city addresses homelessness. Some people don’t want to be helped in the way that we think they want to be helped. Going up to a person on the streets with clipboards and a team of outreach officers, handcuffing them and running through a list of psychiatric medications is not addressing the core root of the problem, according to Saunders.

“And that’s trust,” he said. “The trust is so broken.”

For “unreachable” people who are on the verge of “giv[ing] up on themselves,” let alone on the external world, “you can barely lock eyes with them,” he described. “They are too emotionally distraught to make sense of what’s going on [at] that moment.” The homeless are expected to react to help as if they had just met an “angel,” but there will always be people who “cocoon” themselves, who see imminent danger in those with the breadth of resources to help them, he said. To them, more resources can mean greater power to do harm.

Saunders suggests that instead of having the city install more security cameras or send in more police officers, sometimes the best thing that people can do is just sit down, listen and let the homeless speak for themselves. He urges the city to allocate land to create new parks and lots, to go up to people on the streets and hand them little slips of paper that read: “make this land your own” without saying much else. While the Green currently seems to serve as a “haven” for the homeless, Saunders said that the commercial nature of the intersection makes it difficult for people to relax and carry out recreational activities.

In spite of his own struggles, and of the visceral pain brought by seeing other homeless residents, he cannot help but tell himself on solo walks through Downtown that New Haven will always have a special place in his heart — out of all the different “cards” he has been dealt in life.

This moment marks the fourth time that Saunders has lived in the city, and one thing has never changed: the attitude of the people. The people here remind him of New York, a place where the folk are “just here together” and where people are as “multi-accepting” as they are “multicultural.” Today, he roams the cityscape with his drone, capturing everything from the fierce determination of community members at housing rallies to the frost-covered faces of the homeless men, women and children laying off the side of soccer fields and riverbeds. In the coming years, he hopes to start a drone-operating business to help out in local rescues and searches — and to buy a plot of land that he can call his very own. He then pointed to a dirt square on the Cross Campus sidewalk, saying that something even as small as that will make him happy. As he said that, the wind rocked the branches of a cherry blossom tree that grew from the square, flickering petals to the ground.

“I love cherry blossoms,” he said. “There’s still work to be done, but New Haven’s a miraculous place. Miraculous,” he said, watching as the sun peeked out from behind the clouds.

The rays of light stretching across campus that day looked a strange yellowish green, a color he said he had never seen before. He repeated the word “miraculous” several more times before getting up, heading toward Sterling Memorial Library. As Saunders flew his drone up and down — and left to right — above Cross Campus, local residents, students, children and tourists alike stopped to look. Innocent eyes and hushed faces looked up at this small machine as it waltzed and tangoed and whirred some more in the skies above — unaware that leading up to these towering heights was an incredible climb that this 52-year-old man had to endure for the majority of his life.

“I like to see people happy,” he said.

When he is not flying drones or editing pictures to bring out the “impact” in them, Saunders loves to continue his hunt for the best thin crust pizza in New Haven, a meal that he likes to finish with some ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s.

Coffee, Theater and a Dog Named Pepsi

To watch Spencer Knoll go about her day is to see New Haven unfold and refold before you: first, into all its individual pockets of life nestled in the most unlikely places, and then back into an echo of sleepy heartbeats drumming beneath a lazy evening skyline.

For Knoll, this city smells like lavender drip and carrot cake as she remembers her customers’ favorite orders at Kaiyden’s Coffee Shop in Wooster Square. It feels like brisk wind brushing against her arms during morning walks to East Rock Park, and it sounds like night rehearsals for “Choir Boy” with the Yale Repertory Theater. It looks like home, even though 2022 is only the second year that Knoll has lived here.

In 2019, the ex-Brooklyn resident, then fresh out of Sarah Lawrence College, was looking to explore what she knew and loved best: theater. She saw storytelling as a medium of “political action,” constantly thinking about “what stories [are currently] getting told” and the ones that still need to be told to “change people’s perceptions.” But as in-person performances slammed to a halt at the start of the pandemic, she pursued other means of “serving the public.” Today, Knoll works at the Housing Collective in Bridgeport, fighting for equitable housing practices in a state that is still short of over 86,000 affordable homes.

“I’m a low-level employee,” Knoll said. “A lot of my work is … data entry and contract review, and that sort of thing. But it feels good to be doing those types of things in service of the greater good, which I really feel like the housing collective does.”

Knoll pointed out the importance of paying attention to the systemic and historical issues at the root of housing inaccessibility that policymakers and the public alike tend to overlook. Central among these issues are sexual violence prevention and restoration, she said, as she alluded to her goal of leaving Connecticut a safer place for women one step and one day at a time.

Now that city nightlife and local entertainment scenes are slowly returning to New Haven, however, Knoll is excited at the prospect of getting involved in theater again with the YDA — this time as a behind-the-scenes house manager. Together with her boyfriend, who currently attends the Drama School, the duo is confident that theater will always be part of their lives in some shape or form, permeating their mission to “uplift communities” through storytelling.

As more residents leave their homes and as community spaces reopen, she looks forward to adding new chapters to her New Haven story, to charting the uncharted and turning unfamiliar faces on the streets into family. Her weekend shifts as a Kaiyden’s barista offer her the perfect opportunity to do all three. Ironically, being a tea drinker working at a coffee shop, she mentioned that it is ultimately the people who make every minute count more — every sound that much brighter — than the timeless whirring of coffee machines. It is the local mothers who have just dropped off their children at school, the Yale students looking for a post-midterm refreshment or the welcoming bosses who allow her to play her favorite music while working, she said. To all the New Haveners making their tea and coffee at home, Knoll recommends investing in a small teapot that you can carry around and directly drink from, as well as an electric frother for milk. It makes things look “fancy,” she added with a chuckle.

“I love it when people bring their dogs — that’s always my favorite to see,” she said, telling me about how her own dog, Pepsi, always gets a little “too excited” whenever he visits the shop. “I probably have more favorite dog customers than favorite human customers. Not that humans are bad. It’s just that dogs are so exciting.”

In her free time, Knoll surfs the Web trying to find vintage Pepsi merchandise and antiques for Pepsi, but has yet to find anything that sells for under several thousand dollars.