Joanne Connon didn't spend Valentine's Day last year making heart-shaped pink cookies or writing mushy love notes. She spent it photographing flower vendors on freeway offramps.
Starting at 10 a.m. in San Pedro, where she lives, Connon drove through parts of Los Angeles, Wilmington, Carson, Compton, Huntington Park, Palms, Culver City, Westchester, Hawthorne and Torrance, along the 110, 10 and 405 freeways, ending at 5 p.m. The route, mapped out, forms a slightly elongated, misshapen heart.
Connon, 38, chose to make the focus of her conceptual project the people who are often invisible to the daily commuters who pass them by: the peddlers who set up shop at offramps and intersections--middle-aged women, couples, young men, most of them Latino.
"I think there's something beautiful about it," said Connon, who is about to give birth to her first child. She sat in a booth at Sacred Grounds, a favorite San Pedro coffeehouse, on a recent gray, rainy day. As she sipped a cup of steamed milk, she tucked back stray tendrils of dark blond hair that frame her face.
"It's beautiful to drive on these offramps and see the hearts and the red roses and the candy. There's a dignity there that maybe we wouldn't normally associate with these folks on the offramps."
Among her subjects are a long-haired, mustached man holding a bouquet as if offering it to a lover; a young couple staring seriously into the camera; a woman wearing a floral print dress and grinning impishly; a tuxedoed man bearing pink bakery boxes; and a young woman standing over a bucket of roses, handfuls of crimson petals scattered along the concrete.
Connon, who teaches English as a second language, adult basic education and high school equivalency courses at the Paramount Adult Education Center, says it wasn't difficult gaining her subjects' trust: "I think they felt sorry for me because my Spanish is so terrible," she said, laughing. "Usually their English was better than my Spanish. But often it came up that I'm a teacher, and a lot of them seemed to hold teachers in high regard. Maybe that broke the ice. I tried convincing one woman to go back to adult school. A lot of these people are doing this as a second or even a third job, but a couple were doing it as their only source of income, and it's a really hard way to earn a living."
The Valentine's theme came to Connon a couple of years ago, after she photographed vendors selling flowers on Mother's Day.
"My mom passed away 15 years ago," she explained, "and two years ago I went out to photograph them as a way to cheer myself up."
Explaining herself became a way to bond with her subjects, some of whom shared their own stories of loss. "When I got the pictures back," she said, "I thought, I should do this again, but on Valentine's Day. I set out on a route, and looked at the map and said, 'Wow, this is in the shape of a heart.' "
Looking at her finished photos, Connon, a former documentary associate producer for ABC and PBS, said she was struck by "the sweetness of their faces. Part of that may have been that it's a fun day. Even if you're not involved with somebody, maybe there's a hopefulness that you could be that day. Or there could be a celebration of anyone in your life you love, it doesn't necessarily have to be a romantic partner."
Connon said she's no political activist but realizes that the people she's captured on film are often marginalized by society.
"I know that even some of my students have been harassed for no good reason. These are good people, they're not committing crimes, but just because they look a certain way or they're at a certain location, they're judged, so I'm motivated to bring attention to that."
Joanne Connon's photographs will be displayed through the end of the month at Creations Art & Framing, 377 W. 7th St., San Pedro, (310) 833-5080.