On the cover of my favorite photography book it says “Make each shot your best”. I would ask my self things like, “Is it just that simple?”, “Was I really making the most out of each photograph?”, “Was I really challenging myself ?” Photography has always been sacred to me. I decided to see if i could really make something meaningful, and truly make each shot my best. So, I set out on what has been the most challenging and the most rewarding of all – to photograph the people life left behind in Los Angeles’s skid row district.
I had an idea of how to make the most out of one roll of film, how to really challenge myself as a photographer. This idea was not the safest or the most dangerous, not the smartest or the most creative, it was something I wanted to do for myself. I knew that if i took 36 photos of 36 people, up close and personal, that I would feel I did justice to that roll of film. I also knew that homeless people make for the most honest portraits. It may be because they have a lot less than I do, or because it reminds me all the things I take for granted. It may be because they are more focused on other things, and less on the way they look behind a camera.
In 2001 I did a project in San Francisco where I would ask people who lived on the streets about whether they believe that the choices that they made played a roll in where they are, or if they believed that it was simply just their fate. I was much younger then, and a bit more naive, but it did open my eyes to much of the physical, mental, alcohol, and drug abuse that exists on the road to skid row. Simply put, life on the street was much more complicated than I had thought, and the stories really touched me.
It is not easy to ask strangers to take their photograph. It is even more difficult to ask someone who has lost everything, and is at their worst. I could have come up with many excuses, but no one told me this was going to be easy. I was determined to follow through on this project, and perhaps against better judgment. So, I got the best roll of film in my fridge, some old expired Agfa Precisa from the all or nothin’ days, and set out with the LC-A on a journey into the places that many people want to forget exist.
Of course most people that I asked said “NO!”. Maybe it was the way I looked, maybe they did not trust me, and had no good reason to do so. I thought about sneaking some photos, which would have worked some of the time. One of the people that said no to me, was kind enough to offer the advice that no matter what I do down here, people get stabbed and shot and murdered so I better ask someone before I take a photo of them. So that is exactly what I did.
I wanted to make the most out of the backgrounds, so I kept that in mind walking toward 7th and Maple. I wanted to make the most of the portraits, and find some backgrounds to bring out the most of the people in the photos. I had gotten some 1$ bills to offer people in exchange for their photo, but so many people told me they thought I was a cop amongst other things. I realized offering money only made my intentions seem more unclear, and through trial and error decided it was not always in my best interest to offer money before a photo, but after could be a nice gesture to offer to those in need.
I finally made my way down San Julian where the whole street is lined with tents and people. As soon as I walked down that street people asked me right away why I was there. I told each person the truth, and I realized that as soon as one person trusted me, a few of the other people around also began to trust me. Some of them asked if I wanted photographs of them smoking crack, and smoked crack right in front of me. I was scared of course. What I think may have been a drug dealer told me he had seen me hanging around and in so many words told me to get out of there, so I did.
I walked and walked, and talked to many people on those streets about all the things they wanted to tell me. I listen to stories of how they lost everything, of how this was the ultimate rock bottom, and sometimes how they appreciated me taking their photographs. Some told stories of other people who lived on the streets who were killed, or who had died. I was honest about why I was taking photographs, and i told them that I wanted to take photos that meant something, and that I wanted to photograph real people. Some people understood, and some did not. Of the ones that did, some allowed me to photograph them. One guy asked my why I did not go to Beverly Hills to take people’s photos. Another thing that helped was the camera itself. I think if i was using a digital camera it would have seemed much different.
I think we all know what it is like to lose someone or something, but that no matter what, life always brings something new. So, thank you for the people who let me take your photo and tell part of your story here.
- Check out the full set here.