May 27, 2014 4:38 PM EDT

Like any city, New York is covered in advertisements. Bright, flashy banners on every corner tout goods and services that, to the average city dweller, range from daily necessities to luxuries. But another visual element of urban life is just as familiar, and just as often overlooked: the homeless.

Andres Serrano, a life-long New Yorker and artist who has tackled intractable controversies over the course of his career, unveiled a new project last week that combines these two constant visual features of city life. Residents of New York, a series of large format portraits of the homeless, has taken over the spaces typically occupied by advertisements at the West 4th Street subway station in New York’s West Village and at other locations in the bustling Manhattan neighborhood.

“As a New Yorker, I see ads all the time, and I get sick of them, like a lot of people do, so we just sort of ignore them,” Serrano told TIME, “but I want people to see this work. I see people in that station all the time, just rushing by to get to their destination, but they’re a captive audience. They can’t not see the photos.”

This isn’t the first time Serrano has explored the issue of homelessness in his art, but this is the most direct documentary project he’s done on the subject, and said he drew inspiration from photographers hired by the U.S. government to document the Great Depression. Those images, he said, had a timelessness he tried to capture in this new series of portraits.

I often get asked where my inspiration comes from when I’m working on a new project. More often than not it comes from what is happening around me – whether it be personal or worldwide events. As I was working on my new release, SOVEREIGN, I reflected on memories of an event 15 years ago – one that I never want to neglect or forget. An event that forever fed my passion to reach out to kids who so desperately need our help. April 20, 1999: I remember sitting in front of the TV screen – staring in disbelief at blurry images of high school kids jumping from windows, running from their school with their hands held over their heads as though in a war zone. Distraught parents were held back by police, not knowing if their kids were dead or alive. Confusion only escalated as news media swarmed the area. I was still numb from shock when Governor Owens called, asking if Amy Grant and I would come to Columbine and participate in the memorial service for the thirteen who died. In all my years on the stage, I have never experienced anything like the pain of those that gathered for that service. In truth, there were fifteen lives lost that horrible day. To me, the loss included the shooters that had wreaked such senseless havoc before taking their own lives. I remember wondering, “Would things have been different if these two troubled teenagers had had a place to go? A place to talk, to feel loved and valued? A place to belong?” With the help of a phenomenal group of supportive friends, I created such a place in Nashville, called Rocketown, after a song I recorded years earlier. It started as just a safe club for teenagers to gather, but that barely scratches the surface of what it has become. Rocketown has become a place that provides common ground for the outsiders--the troubled and misunderstood kids—as well as student leaders. It’s a place to matter, to receive the love, attention, and encouragement of a staff that truly has a heart for kids–all kids. It’s a big place—2.5 acres in downtown Nashville - - - 36,000 square foot building. Under one roof, we have a concert hall, an indoor skate park, a coffee bar, a recording studio, a dance studio and a whole lot more. But we know the real story: the kids don’t come for the “things” we have. They come to be loved, accepted, heard, counseled, and mentored. At Rocketown, we refuse to draw the lines of separation—the kids from public housing and those who live in the most affluent neighborhoods connect on the basketball court, in an art class, at a music workshop. Friendships form. Trust builds. Straight A students help the kids that are struggling to keep a D. Can a place like Rocketown keep another tragedy from happening? Honestly, I can’t say. But I do know this: lives are being changed there, one kid at a time. Hopeless kids begin to dream about what their lives can be. Shy kids find a safe place to open up and learn to build relationships. Kids who feel worthless are opened up to the truth that they are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God, that they can have “a hope and a future.” We’ve been around for almost 20 years now. Some of the impact can be measured, and some of it can’t. I know in my heart that we are making a difference in the lives of many of these kids. It’s powerful to watch our teenagers completely transformed just because someone took the time to learn their name, praised them when they turned in their homework on time, laughed with them, and constantly reminded them that their life matters. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRb_NIQTzyA Michael W. Smith is a singer, songwriter, and musician who has sold more than 15 million albums. His first worship album since 2008, Sovereign, is available May 13.
An Rong Xu for TIME

“[Homelessness] is, unfortunately, not going away,” he said. “I see homelessness on a New York scale, which is huge enough as it is, but it’s happening everywhere. As an artist, and as a New York artist, I felt compelled to do something.”

So in January, in the midst of a particularly harsh winter in New York, Serrano, supported by public art organization More Art, took to the streets with a 4×5 camera and began shooting. “I really wanted to avoid using the term ‘homeless,’ because the streets are these people’s homes. So I approached them as if I was entering their living room and asked if I could take their photo,” he said.

Serrano photographed more than 100 people this winter. Through the final 35 portraits that are now on display throughout the West Village, he illustrates the vulnerability and vigilance of a population of overlooked and under-served New Yorkers — a community too big to be ignored, and for Serrano, too entrenched in New York City to truly be called “homeless.”

Residents of New York will be on display from through June 15th at the West 4th Street MTA station, LaGuardia Place between West 3rd and Bleecker St., Judson Memorial Church and at various public phone booths around Manhattan’s West Village.


Andres Serrano is an artist and photographer based in New York.

More Art is a non-profit organization dedicated to producing meaningful and engaging works of public art in New York City.

Krystal Grow is a writer for TIME LightBox


Contact us at letters@time.com.

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