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Path to photographing homeless began in shock then curiosity

Associated Press photographer's path to photographing the homeless began in shock, then curiosity

Published on November 10, 2017 2:11PM

Last changed on November 10, 2017 7:04PM

James Harris, 54, poses for a photo Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, in Los Angeles. Harris has had AIDS for 30 years, he said. When medication stopped working, he got depressed and was evicted. Now he feels like an outcast, vulnerable and struggling to survive. He's hoping that as a veteran he can get permanent housing, though he missed an earlier opportunity because a stint in a shelter disqualified him from being considered chronically homeless. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The Associated Press

James Harris, 54, poses for a photo Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, in Los Angeles. Harris has had AIDS for 30 years, he said. When medication stopped working, he got depressed and was evicted. Now he feels like an outcast, vulnerable and struggling to survive. He's hoping that as a veteran he can get permanent housing, though he missed an earlier opportunity because a stint in a shelter disqualified him from being considered chronically homeless. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Bernadette Ortiz, 39, poses for a photo Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, in San Jose, Calif. Ortiz recently gave a birth to her fifth child. She and her fiance were living in a tent when she found out she was pregnant. The couple lives in a temporary shelter at a local church until their move to a studio apartment.

The Associated Press

Bernadette Ortiz, 39, poses for a photo Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, in San Jose, Calif. Ortiz recently gave a birth to her fifth child. She and her fiance were living in a tent when she found out she was pregnant. The couple lives in a temporary shelter at a local church until their move to a studio apartment. "I don't want to live in a tent ever again," said Ortiz. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Moi Williams, 59, poses for a photo Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017, in Los Angeles. Williams, who has been homeless for four years, said he is comfortable sleeping on the street.

The Associated Press

Moi Williams, 59, poses for a photo Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017, in Los Angeles. Williams, who has been homeless for four years, said he is comfortable sleeping on the street. "I'm not bothering nobody. I'm not being bothered." The homeless are easy to pass by on the street. It's harder when you look into their eyes. Their gazes hint at lost promise or a glimmer of hope. Some are sad, some placid, others haunting. Behind each person is a story that however vague offers some glimpse into their lives. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Jorge Ortega, 40, poses for a photo Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Los Angeles. Ortega said has been living on the street for more than 10 years after losing his job at the Los Angeles International Airport. Ortega said he has a 14-year-old son living in Washington. His son doesn't know Ortega is homeless, sleeping on a sidewalk of Skid Row. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The Associated Press

Jorge Ortega, 40, poses for a photo Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Los Angeles. Ortega said has been living on the street for more than 10 years after losing his job at the Los Angeles International Airport. Ortega said he has a 14-year-old son living in Washington. His son doesn't know Ortega is homeless, sleeping on a sidewalk of Skid Row. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

John Ruiz, 9, poses for a photo in front of the RV where he lives with his family on Monday, Oct. 23, 2017, in Mountain View, Calif. His parents and four siblings moved into the camper after they could no longer afford the rent in an apartment. John dreams of his family having a successful life together and maybe ending up in mansion _ a home that might have swimming pool and backyard. Or at least one big enough to have his own room. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The Associated Press

John Ruiz, 9, poses for a photo in front of the RV where he lives with his family on Monday, Oct. 23, 2017, in Mountain View, Calif. His parents and four siblings moved into the camper after they could no longer afford the rent in an apartment. John dreams of his family having a successful life together and maybe ending up in mansion _ a home that might have swimming pool and backyard. Or at least one big enough to have his own room. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Bennie Sayee Koffa, 66, poses for a photo at Camp Second Chance, a city-sanctioned homeless camp, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, in Seattle. Koffa said he came to the U.S. in 1990 and never returned as a civil war raged for years in Liberia. He has lived in Canada and sought refugee status in the U.S. He ended up homeless and living on the streets of Seattle after splitting up with his wife a year ago, he said. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The Associated Press

Bennie Sayee Koffa, 66, poses for a photo at Camp Second Chance, a city-sanctioned homeless camp, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, in Seattle. Koffa said he came to the U.S. in 1990 and never returned as a civil war raged for years in Liberia. He has lived in Canada and sought refugee status in the U.S. He ended up homeless and living on the streets of Seattle after splitting up with his wife a year ago, he said. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Alicia Adara, 33, poses for a photo Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, in Seattle. Adara said she ended up on the street after losing a custody fight for her two children with her ex-husband.

The Associated Press

Alicia Adara, 33, poses for a photo Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, in Seattle. Adara said she ended up on the street after losing a custody fight for her two children with her ex-husband. "I don't do shelters. I feel like I'm in jail," she said. "I've been like basically a prisoner all my life. I need to do this. I need to be out here. It's freedom." (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Tammy Stephen, 54, poses for a photo Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, in Seattle. Stephen lives in Camp Second Chance, a city-sanctioned homeless encampment in Seattle.

The Associated Press

Tammy Stephen, 54, poses for a photo Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, in Seattle. Stephen lives in Camp Second Chance, a city-sanctioned homeless encampment in Seattle. "Housing here is out of control. That's why we have so many people on the street," she said. "There's nowhere for them to go." (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Harrison Perkins, 31, poses for a photo Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, in Seattle. Perkins said he and his fiancee ended up on the street about two months ago after she accidentally burned down her mother's kitchen. Perkins, a recovering drug addict, wants to go back to Cleveland, Ohio, where his family lives. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The Associated Press

Harrison Perkins, 31, poses for a photo Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, in Seattle. Perkins said he and his fiancee ended up on the street about two months ago after she accidentally burned down her mother's kitchen. Perkins, a recovering drug addict, wants to go back to Cleveland, Ohio, where his family lives. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Barry Warren, 52, poses for a photo Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, in Seattle. Warren says he has been homeless his entire adult life. After about 20 years without a home in California, he moved to Seattle, where he says the benefits are better and life on the street is safer. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The Associated Press

Barry Warren, 52, poses for a photo Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, in Seattle. Warren says he has been homeless his entire adult life. After about 20 years without a home in California, he moved to Seattle, where he says the benefits are better and life on the street is safer. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Dolores Epps, 41, poses for a photo Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017, in Los Angeles. Epps, a mother of two children who has been homeless for five years, once had a job at a salon and still makes money cutting hair.

The Associated Press

Dolores Epps, 41, poses for a photo Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017, in Los Angeles. Epps, a mother of two children who has been homeless for five years, once had a job at a salon and still makes money cutting hair. "I don't touch everybody, only the people that are clean," Epps said. "All these dope fiends are gonna keep looking like a dope fiend. You're not my problem. But if you're a clean person and you just want to get a little bit extra sassy or as a man look a little more handsome, then yeah." Her mother has custody of her 15-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Robert Irwin, 72, poses for a photo at Camp Second Chance, a city-sanctioned homeless encampment, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, in Seattle. Irwin said he is planning a trip to Michigan to see his older sister.

The Associated Press

Robert Irwin, 72, poses for a photo at Camp Second Chance, a city-sanctioned homeless encampment, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, in Seattle. Irwin said he is planning a trip to Michigan to see his older sister. "I have my own SUV, Chevy Trailblazer. I want to go in March. It will be my last trip." (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)


LOS ANGELES (AP) I was drawn to document life on Skid Row after being repulsed by it.

Initially, it wasn't to bring awareness to the plight of the people there or to give voice to the homeless. It was more of a visual curiosity.

Tents were dwarfed by skyscrapers. People were shooting heroin and smoking crack in broad daylight. A mentally ill woman was screaming and cursing as if seeing a ghost.

My first encounter with this square mile of misery nearly a decade ago remains a vivid memory. I passed through in my car and double-checked to make sure my doors were locked and windows rolled up tight. It wasn't fear; it was shock.

When I returned a couple of years later, I was on foot with my camera. I had to experience the sights, sounds and smells up close.

My role in The Associated Press' project to document the homeless crisis on the West Coast began in late August. Except for a few days covering the Northern California wildfires and the World Series, this is all I did for nearly three months.

I walked a lot and talked to a lot of people. Many generously told me their stories. Some were clearly high or mentally ill. Others were scary.

People cursed me inches from my face, spittle flying from their mouths. A woman living on Skid Row told me no one would kill me there because they didn't want trouble with the police, but they might rough me up.

I saw so much of people in their rawest moments that I couldn't bring myself to photograph some of it.

I dialed 911 four times to get help for people. One was a drug addict passed out in the middle of a street intersection on Skid Row. Another was a naked woman in a tree in Santa Ana talking to herself in Spanish.

There's always an internal struggle. As a photographer, I want to capture the moment because my job is to tell the story. As a human, the agony can be too hard to watch. Some don't know they need help or even that help exists.

I have sympathy for the poor. I don't judge them now that I've seen so many people in dire situations and have heard about their lives. Many times I've tried to comfort them with encouraging words.

I wish I understood the problem of homelessness better than before. Truth is, I'm more confused than ever. I can't see a solution.

Skid Row is like a planet of its own. I'm just orbiting it as an observer.

One night this week, there were two long lines on the edge of downtown Los Angeles.

One was the usual line of homeless waiting for dinner at the Midnight Mission. The other, not far away, was to get into Gwen Stefani's meet-and-greet to celebrate her holiday album "You Make It Feel Like Christmas."

My home will soon start to feel like Christmas as my wife starts decorating. There will even be Christmas on Skid Row, too.

Well-meaning folks and some celebrities and politicians will dish out meals. Blankets will be given as gifts. I hope they do more than just cover up all the suffering.

___

Follow Jae Hong at https://twitter.com/jaethephotog



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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