Grey concrete blocks and trash collect amidst tents of people who live on the streets. A majority of Los Angeles’s population without a house lives here, according to numbers of the Homeless Services Authority, on Skid Row. US street photographer Suzanne Stein has visited the area many times. She shares street photographs and stories on her personal blog.
We spoke with her about the background of her project, ethics and the social situation in the USA.
Skid Row is known as an area with one of the highest populations of homeless people. When did you start your photographic documentary project? Why did you choose this location and this social topic?
I first drove through the Skid Row area approximately one year ago. I’ve traveled and lived in many places throughout the world but had never before observed the intensity of emotion, varied visual textures and the expressive, volatile interactions visible at all times of day and night. I was instantly fascinated and captivated by what I saw and knew that I couldn’t be satisfied until I had developed a way to shoot photographs on the street, immersed in all of this intense activity.
How do you feel after a day of talking, photographing and walking around Skid Row?
I am generally relieved to have made it without having my camera stolen or becoming involved in a chaotic, unpredictable situation with someone who is mentally ill, high on drugs, or otherwise presents a safety concern. I haven’t had any serious problems thus far… I’ve been close but in all honesty many of the people I interact with are respectful and friendly toward me. I treasure most of the time spent there, as I like the people I meet and value their truth and lack of pretense. There are genuinely good people, but unfortunately there are also some deeply flawed individuals who practice great cruelty to others and I’m always on guard with these facts in mind. Only after leaving do I begin to reflect on what I’ve actually witnessed or photographed.
What astonished you most after you have visited this are so many times and have heard so many stories, seen so many different faces?
The strangest thing I’ve yet witnessed was an inexplicable occurrence involving two white males who walked to a tent and began to inject a syringe into a nearly unconscious dark-skinned woman who had been languishing between her tent and the wall of a building. They injected her with something in the neck, talking and laughing… the woman slumped even more, and they left after slowly pushing the contents of the syringe directly into her neck.
After which ethical measure do you decide which moments are suitable to be photographed and published?
Ethics is many times foremost on my mind when I tell stories on my blog or post pictures on the internet for all to see. Unfortunately, in order to tell the truth in documentation of any kind, one must be comfortable with revealing the personal truths of other people if, in revealing these intimacies, a greater good can be justifiably argued. There are many photos and story lines that I keep private, as I don’t feel comfortable unless someone (and they often do) specifically says „tell my story, all of it“ …and even then, much is left out.
I consider myself primarily a street photographer and I do believe that ethical considerations in street photography are lacking for many people involved in the genre. I am sure that I am at times offensive to some, but I photograph the truth, and never for the purpose of mockery or deliberate, cruel exploitation. Sometimes the truth hurts, and the small truths in my photos I feel can also be applied to larger, more complex social issues that need further exploration.
Did this project change your personal view of society? In which way?
In some respects, yes. One of the reasons I am attracted to many of the people and situations I find on Skid Row is because of my long-standing personal views about human nature and social issues that reflect a biased, stratified society. In the USA, we are becoming more and more insensitive to the root causes of poverty, social injustice and everyday anger and distrust that exists between people of different racial and economic backgrounds. For many people, life isn’t fair in the deepest sense, and personal survival is wholly dependent on one’s ability to forcefully push aside tremendous negative influences that penetrate and damage in order to override a difficult personal background and forge a new reality for oneself.
People will often open themselves completely to me because I’m taking their picture and focused on them. Just a small amount of attention from the outside can bring on a tremendous emotional reaction from someone who is absolutely cast off from the world. – Suzanne Stein
Dear Suzanne, thank you for the interview!
More photographs and stories from Skid Row can be found on Suzanne Stein’s Blog and Instagram: suzanne_stein.
All images: Suzanne Stein / German version on Unangepasst Blog