Portraits from Skid Row
I’m not quite sure how I initially found John Hwang, but somewhere in between checking my emails, writing a blog, and scrolling through Facebook, I found him, and I’m glad I did.
I added him as a friend and discovered his beautiful touching photographs.
By day John is an occupational therapist, and by night he photographs people living on skid row who are deemed “undesirable” by society, but he doesn’t see it that way, and neither do I.
Today I met Ronnie, who goes by the name “Pepper.” He lives along the LA river where he finds peace. He has a tattoo “Lisa” on his arm, to honor the one person that gave him true love, his mother. He is HIV positive and knows that his days are numbered. He told me that what keeps him going is that he wants to make people smile and spread love as much as he can. He has a beautiful attitude about life despite his father being a very violent and hateful man. His dad was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and beat him and his mother often. There was a time when Pepper also lived a life of violence and addiction. Despite losing much of his material possessions and knowing that he is dying, Pepper has gained something far greater. The capacity to love.
John has a big heart, and he is a voice for the voiceless. Through his portraits he tells the stories of people who have been forgotten by many.
His photographs are beautiful and simple, showing how fragile we really are.
They come from a place of deep compassion.
I wanted to find out more about John, and he was kind enough to answer my questions.
Make at least 5 people smile. That is Curtis’ goal everyday. In the midst of the hopelessness found in Skid Row, he is like a breath of fresh air. His radiance beaming from his face. “Happiness is a choice” he told me. Life was never easy for Curtis. Coming from a broken and abusive family. He nearly wrecked his life doing drugs. Living on the streets for many years he learned what really matters. “We are here on this earth to make a positive impact, there are hurting people everywhere.” Even though Curtis himself is homeless, he volunteers countless hours at the shelters to help others in need. He dreams of becoming a motivational speaker one day to inspire others to never lose hope. He also enjoys writing, particularly about being positive and finding peace. Tonight Curtis made me smile.
Where are you from?
I was born in the Canary Islands. Spent part of my early childhood in Korea, Panama, and Mexico. I immigrated to the US when I was 8 years old. I lived in Southern California for most of my life. I currently reside in La Puente, California.
Matt was a well-to-do independent contractor. He lived in a nice home and had a lovely wife. An accident left Matt permanently disabled. The medical bills left him bankrupt. His home was gone, and so was his wife. Unable to find work, living on the streets, he became so depressed that he contemplated suicide. One day, he saw some people abusing a cat in an alley way. The cat ran to him shaking in fear and from then on they became inseparable. Now he had a reason to keep living. Taking care of the cat helped Matt come out of his depression. Matt and his faithful companion wander the streets of downtown looking for work or rely on the kind donations of strangers. He dreams of one day getting off the streets and working for an animal welfare organization. Because according to Matt “this cat kept me from going insane. I didn’t rescue him, he rescued me…”
How did you start connecting with people on the street?
Growing up in Los Angeles, it’s common to see homeless people everywhere. I’ve always been curious to learn about their story. How they ended up on the street. When someone would come up to me for money or food I would chat with them. The first time I remember having a real genuine conversation with a homeless person was during Thanksgiving. I was volunteering at a soup kitchen and I was casually making conversation with someone. I remember being very taken back by how intelligent he was. We had such a wonderful, thoughtful, interesting conversation. It turns out he was a professor. But drug addiction messed up his life. He was so open and vulnerable with me. It really touched me a lot.
How late into the night are you out, and how do you go about approaching people?
Sometimes I am out in Skid Row past midnight. I don’t have any particular way of approaching people. I just try to be respectful of people’s space. Even though they are homeless, I think of the sidewalk they are sitting on as having an invisible wall like it’s their home. I usually just try to be open and make myself available if anyone wants to talk with me.
Today I met “Justin” who is 26, and his girlfriend “Anna” who is 19. They are both homeless living on Skid Row. Justin struggles with an addiction to heroin and alcohol. Anna is often mistaken for a prostitute but refuses to sell her body for money. I bought dinner for them, Justin could only eat mashed potatoes because he bit his tongue when he was having seizures from drug related withdrawals. Anna only wanted to have a milkshake. We sat on the sidewalk together and I listened to them share stories of how they met, what they mean to each other and their struggles on the street. I found out that both of Justin’s parents died when he was young and he has no siblings, while Anna ran away from home because of an abusive step father. Then I realized they are the only family they have for each other.
Are the people you meet usually open to speaking with you?
When I show that I am interested in what they have to say most people are very open to talking. I think people no matter where they are from want to be validated, heard, and to feel respected.
She walked with me through the dark and seemingly chaotic streets of Skid Row at night. Like an older sister, she watched over me to make sure I was safe. That people weren’t going to take advantage of me or harass me. She became my shield, my guiding angel. She had been living on the streets long enough to know everyone; who to trust and who to stay away from. Being homeless for so long it gave her a hardened tough exterior, but the way she took me under her wing showed her softer side, a sweet and nurturing heart. As soon as she was sure I was safe she quickly disappeared into the night. Donna Monique, the self appointed “Hood Patrol.”
Why is it important to you to share their stories?
I think there is a stigma when it comes to the homeless. Society holds certain perceptions, prejudices towards the homeless.
By sharing their stories I want the homeless to be seen as people. As unique individuals. That we all share a common humanity.
What have you learned from them?
Circumstances and choices may send us on a different path in life. But underneath people are all the same.
His eyes lit up when I handed him the National Geographic magazine. Richard loves to read. “It takes me to places I’ve never gone” he told me. Richard is a quiet and thoughtful man. As he gently turned each page of the magazine, his eyes scanned over every article and photograph. I could see how much he savoured each page. Richard was in a car accident that left him disabled. Confined to the streets. However, reading set his mind free. For a brief moment to escape the grim reality of his circumstances.
Can you share with us a moment of hope and love?
After I posted on Facebook a story about a homeless woman I met, someone identified her as a missing person. I was able to get in touch with her loved ones and have her reunited with her family. That was pretty amazing.
A special thank you to John for lending his time, sharing his photographs, and big thank you to the people in the photographs for sharing their stories.
It is always wonderful to be reminded that there are people out there who care.
You can check out more of John’s work here: John Hwang