Photographer and activist Jon Linton, 56, stands with a bus that he purchased and had painted with the name of his project, “Let’s Be Better Humans.” He regularly uses the fan to disburse food to people in need. Credit: Submitted by Jon Linton

You’ve seen them.

Whether they’re standing at the stoplight near Woodman’s by the interstate, the one at 67th Street and Green Bay Road, or simply just sitting around a tree in the middle of Uptown along 22nd Avenue, you’ve seen them: people in need, without a home, struggling with addiction issues or simply lacking resources.

You’ve certainly seen their faces, but do you know the color of their eyes? Do you know how old they are? 

Do you know their names?

If you don’t, Jon Linton is making his way across the nation with a project and initiative to make sure that some day you will.

Linton photographed murals outside of Diver Dan’s Scuba and Aquatic Center in Kenosha, 3927 30th Ave., earlier this month, as well as protests in the streets. He came to the city specifically to document the events that followed in the aftermath of the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha Police Department Officer Rusten Skeskey on Aug. 23. 

In his work, Linton has traveled from his home of Phoenix to Skid Row in Los Angeles. He has also taken projects to Mexico and all over the nation ⏤ including to Minneapolis following the death of George Floyd.

 ‘An instrument in his honor’

The 56-year-old Chicago native has spent decades in the art world and as a photographer ⏤ starting personally at the age of 13 or 14 when he would take his “mother’s 35 mm Minolta and take photographs around the neighborhood,” according to the “about” information on Linton’s website

Professionally, Linton developed a background in corporate photography early in his career with a position with Ralph Lauren and later would go on to have his own gallery and create his own art publication, which he ran for ten years. 

After a friend died of a heroin overdose while living on the streets, Linton left corporate photography. He then set out to photograph people often overlooked by the public.

“I decided to use art as an instrument in his honor and also to give a voice to people that are on the streets,” Linton said. 

The then-nameless project began with Linton collecting photographs to do an exhibition. He planned to leverage his connections in the Phoenix area to secure a location. He also hoped to leverage his former publishing experience to create a coffee book.  

Months before a start

It was not a new idea in Linton’s life. In fact, a close friend reminded Linton at that time.

“He said, ‘Yeah, you’ve been talking about it for five years. Go take some pictures,'” Linton recalled.

After that, Linton put a camera in his car. 

“It sat there for three months before I had the courage to actually figure out how I was going to make and create an interaction with someone that felt dignified,” he said.

Part of this approach was ensuring that he didn’t use the world “homeless.” 

“I don’t like to use the word ‘homeless,’” Linton said. “To me, it feels like negative reinforcement. Most of these individuals, obviously, are keenly aware of their circumstances, and it’s dehumanizing.”

‘I Have a Name’

In taking his first photograph for his new project, he made a mistake in introducing himself. This mistake led to the moment that gave his project its name.

“In the first picture, I didn’t introduce myself properly. I stopped after the man said, ‘You can take my picture and collect my story.’ And I said, you know, ‘My name is Jon. What’s your name?’ And he started to weep. And we both started to weep. And the project became ‘I Have a Name’ in that moment.’”

Linton makes it a point to remember the names of the people he documents. This is especially true of the man whose name kicked off the I Have A Name Project.

“I’ll never forget Chuck Ridgeway’s name.”

Jon Linton
Chuck Ridgeway, the first person in need who Jon Linton photographed for the I Have a Name Project. Credit: Photo by Jon Linton

Linton has since held several exhibitions with his photography from the project. He also does outreach on the streets with different groups around Phoenix. A social media platform he created for the initial show for the project’s pictures gained traction, peaking at 50,000 views. But he wanted people “activated,” he said.

‘Let’s Be Better Humans’

Linton then designed T-shirts with the words “Let’s Be Better Humans” on them. He intended to sell them to fund another project to feed those in need around Phoenix.

“And I sold shirts from Peoria, Ill., to Paris, France, and all points in between; ended up buying a bus. We used art then to create a really interesting message on the bus ⏤ ‘Let’s Be Better Humans.’ And then we use that bus to feed people in Phoenix routinely,” Linton said.

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The project would go on to later also feed people in Skid Row in Los Angeles and Mexico. 

Linton developed a partnership with Seagram’s heir Adam Bronfman. Bronfman joined Linton on a trip to feed those in need, not long after. 

“The day he came on the bus, we were threatened with arrest for feeding people, if you can imagine that ⏤ and for delivering water when it’s 115 degrees,” Linton said. 

“Law enforcement threatened to arrest me and told me that I had been lucky that I had been taken to jail previously, and that my ‘Partridge Family bus’ had been fortunate that it hadn’t been impounded.” 

Linton took his first bus to Mexico. He said he found that trip to be the most meaningful thing he has done that was actually actionable. That trip provided water, food, resources, and toys to people in need south of the border.

“And I got death threats for doing that, if you can imagine that,” Linton said.

A second bus

Bronfman noted that Linton no longer took the bus to Mexico. Linton explained that he had put too many miles on the bus. While he could “putter” around Phoenix, he couldn’t take an extended trip in the van any longer. 

Through his family foundation, Bronfam provided Linton a second bus. 

“And we actually took that bus out just recently for three weeks and went from Phoenix to Skid Row to Venice Beach to Oakland, San Francisco, Portland, Reno, Las Vegas. … Just going around feeding people, man”

Flown to Kenosha by Minnesota family

Bronfman is not the only wealthy individual, or even part of the only wealthy family, backing Linton’s efforts. 

Jon Linton stands in Kenosha with a flower stuck behind his ear in the weeks following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Credit: Submitted by Jon Linton

In fact, Linton’s presence in Kenosha during the recent unrest following the police shooting of Jacob Blake stemmed from a direct request from the Dillon family in Minnesota, specifically Stephanie Dillon in Minneapolis. 

“They collect my work, my commercial work in photography,” Linton explained. “Stephanie Dillon is an artist herself; she had flown me to Minneapolis when George Floyd was killed. And I was asked to take pictures on her streets. 

“She knew I wouldn’t say no. Went up (to Minneapolis); spent a week there; and it was, without question, the most profoundly impacting experience I had in a week. There was a lot of heartaches and there was a lot of celebration. And, actually, that’s what I found here (in Kenosha), as well.”

A ‘Creative’ partnership

Soon after arriving in Kenosha, Linton met Kenosha Creative Space Executive Director Francisco Loyola. This chance meeting led to a partnership that produced a small exhibit at the Kenosha Creative Space building on Sept. 5 and may lead to future local exhibits.

“We’re going to use the imagery I’ve collected here to showcase the community and provide imagery that will be a reminder so that, when this falls out of the news cycle, it doesn’t just become another hashtag,” Linton said.

In an exchange over Facebook Messenger on Sept. 18, Linton stated that he planned on coming back to Kenosha soon.

“I will be back in Kenosha in the coming weeks for an art show of the photos taken while in town during the unrest,” he said.

What he saw here

And what did Linton witness during his first time in Kenosha? He saw the same beauty and ugliness he’s seen everywhere else.

“Whether it’s Kenosha, Wisconsin, or Chicago or Atlanta or Philadelphia or points in between, the country is divided,” he said. “But what I’m seeing when these things happen, when these unfortunate acts of ugliness and violence, racial violence in my opinion, but what we’re seeing are communities that stop; they take a pause; they breathe, and they start to realize what’s important. That we’re all Americans. That we all bleed and hurt and love and celebrate the same way, and that it’s time to come back together as a people.”

Jon Linton lies down in the roadway while talking photos of people near Civic Center Park in Kenosha during the unrest following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Credit: Submitted by Jon Linton

Will this always be necessary?

The question caused Linton to pause.

He sees himself as “forever an eternal optimist.”

But now he furrowed his brow; his fingers moving over his face mask where his mustache sat underneath while considering the question. The eternal optimist battling the less than hopeful, but honest response he had.

“I spend some time reading. I spend a lot of time educating myself. And I spend a lot of time watching film. Important film, important pieces of art that deliver, I think, critical content. There was a film done by Gore Vidal called ‘The United States of Amnesia,’” Linton said. “It was done a number of years ago. But it portrayed some of the things that were going on as our country was polarized in the 1960s. Well, that’s 50 years ago now. 

“So if you’re asking me do I still think I’ll be doing this, I think until we evolve as a people until humankind evolves so that we are not one of, if not the, ugliest species on the planet … Yeah, I’ll still be doing this work. We got a long way to go.” 

Jon Linton

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Daniel Thompson is an independent journalist and the founder of The Uptown Observer based in the Kenosha, Wis., area. He started in journalism at the Western Nebraska Observer in 2012 and, most notably,...