The homeless are some of the most marginalized members of society, often eliciting responses of disgust and cruelty from those more fortunate who pass by on the streets. For those living in major metropolitan areas where homelessness is a much more prominent problem, it’s easy to become desensitized to it. When you walk by five, 10, 20 homeless individuals on your way to work, it becomes part of your daily landscape, and so you learn to shuffle on to your job with your headphones on and eyes averted.
Many people get overwhelmed by the thought, “I can’t possibly help each of these individuals today, let alone help them every day,” so they simply don’t help at all. But how would your opinion of the homeless change if one day you saw your own father standing in rags on a street corner? For photographer Diana Kim, this was a heartbreaking reality, and her experience with a homeless father has since made her a powerful advocate for the homeless.
NBC News recently profiled the 30-year-old Oahu photographer in a feature focusing on her relationship with her father. Diana was born and raised in Maui, Hawaii, and her father ran a photography studio during the early years of her childhood. When Diana was only 5 years old, her father abandoned her family. She would spend the next decade of her life not knowing where he had gone or what he was doing.
Diana did not have an easy youth in the years following her father’s departure, moving from relative’s home to relative’s home before essentially becoming homeless. She spent years living in parks, in cars or with friends — which most people would consider a treacherous bout of homelessness — but she told NBC News, “I always thought of it as ‘roughing it,’ so it didn’t really bother me.”
In 2003 while she was still a student, Diana started a photography project that explored the problem of homelessness through humanizing portraits that she snapped of the people she saw living on the streets. This project ended up being incredibly important to her, and she continued to document the homeless for years to come. It wasn’t until 2012 that Diana received word about her father from her grandmother; Diana’s father’s mental health had been severely deteriorating and he needed help. What her grandmother failed to mention was how horribly Diana’s father’s schizophrenia had ravaged his mind.
One afternoon when Diana was out shooting, she saw her father standing on a street corner. He was evidently homeless and tormented by his mental illness, and seeing him like this left Diana heartbroken. Her father didn’t even recognize her.
She has vivid memories of a woman telling her “not to bother” in regard to her father; to everyone else, he was beyond hope, just another homeless tragedy fated to spend the rest of his days wandering the streets. Diana told NBC, “I wanted to scream at her for not caring, for being so cruel, and not considering that he was my father. But then I realized that anger wouldn’t do anything to change the circumstances we were in — so I turned towards her and said, ‘I have to try.'”
Though many people in her life saw her efforts as entirely futile, Diana refused to give up on her father and visited him as often as she could. She learned his sleeping patterns and knew which doorway to find him sleeping in most nights. Even though he was mostly unresponsive to her attempts to help, Diana kept coming back.
Part of the purpose of photographing her father in this devastating state was “a mechanism of protection” for Diana, as she had trouble coming to terms with her father’s situation and her role in his life. The photographs were a way for her to remind herself of the realness of what she was experiencing. She did not want to escape her father’s homelessness; she needed to deal with it, to process it. When she could not bring herself to look at her father with her own two eyes, her camera was a perfect buffer.
Diana tried countless times to get her father help in the form of treatment, medication, food, new clothes or even just the chance to bathe, but he always refused. Ultimately, it would be a heart attack that pushed Diana’s father onto a path of recovery. If a kind stranger had not witnessed the heart attack and called an ambulance, Diana’s father would have never made it to the hospital, where his mental health issues were finally addressed.
Diana’s father is now back on a treatment plan and looks like an entirely different person; she says that he’s proud of having overcome such a huge obstacle and has goals for his future. Diana even gave him one of her old cameras to reignite his passion for photography. She says that her father now loves to give his friends rides when they need them, and he’s planning a trip to see his family in South Korea; he’s truly using his second chance at life to live to the fullest.
When Diana started her photography project on homelessness, she had no way of knowing that it would bring her face to face with a struggling father whom she had long-since believed to be out of her life, but it certainly seems as though she was meant to stumble upon her father on that fateful afternoon. When discussing the original intention of her project to NBC, Diana stated, “My goal, long before my father ever became homeless, was to humanize those who lived on the streets. They each have a story.” Coincidentally, it seems that the most powerful way Diana could have ever humanized the homeless was through having an intricately personal relationship with them. She hopes that in sharing her experiences, she can offer a new perspective on homelessness, and she has done exactly that.
It can be so easy to ignore the homeless, but Diana has reminded us all that each and every homeless individual is someone’s family member. Her story encourages us to look past the dirty faces, shoeless feet and torn clothes to see the human being underneath. After all, her father is living proof that even those who seem well beyond help are not necessarily lost. Life is full of second chances for those who refuse to give up.