I had already spent a few years reflecting on the issue of homelessness through photography when I approached C and T, a married couple transitioning from living in the streets of Hollywood to Section 8 housing, about this project. I have received encouragement from peers for shedding light on this critical social issue but I always had a nagging feeling about the imbalance between the power of my gaze and their state of disempowerment whenever I took pictures of people experiencing life in the streets. The response I often received from photographers about my uncertainty was, “If your intention is to tell authentic, empathetic stories, it’s ok.” I appreciated the pat on the back but I couldn’t put my trust solely in my intentions—which are separate from the final output and its effect—to guide me through the murky waters of gaze and representation. Who has the power to see and to tell? Who has the authority to correct when narratives become altered, distorted, and appropriated, even with the best of intentions? As I dove into these questions, I began to see a proliferation of images by well-intentioned street photographers that were cinematic and arresting but that also sensationalized and even fetishized the homeless experience. This was what my nagging sensation was warning me against.
Understandably, C and T were hesitant when I first approached them to participate in this project. To have an outsider capture your experieces is unnerving to say the least, especially regarding stigmatized issues such as mental health, homelessness, poverty, and substance use. Because of this, I was acutely aware of the subtleties of power and power shifts throughout our process: the power of possession (my car, my camera, my grant money), the power of experience and knowledge, the power to ask, to listen, to take, to receive, the power to say no. Our process also taught me how to better observe and contextualize a story not my own in an intimate yet respectful way. However, the dilemma of gaze, representation, and intention is one without a clear answer for me and will necessitate vigilant scrutiny and examination.
C and T’s experience of Los Angeles is wildly different from mine, and many of yours. Their journey along the streets of the city covers the width and breadth of human experience: love, loss, joy, pain, redemption, and everything in between. I made no attempt to capture it all but rather to indicate its scope. I did not have the opportunity to show C and T the entirety of this show prior to the opening, but all images displayed on the wall were approved by C and T and their friends M, D, and H.
– Helen H Kim, artist