Despite its central location in Los Angeles and close proximity to the USC campus, Skid Row isn’t a common destination for students and the people of Los Angeles. This is no surprise, as it is far from a picturesque area, with one of the largest stable populations of homeless people in the U.S. camped along the street beside run-down buildings. Although the area is effectively out of sight and out of mind for the vast majority of L.A. residents, USC alumnus John Hwang is striving to change that. With his Skid Row Stories website, he is attempting to be a self-described “bridge” to the people of Skid Row.
At first glance, the site is reminiscent of the vastly popular Humans of New York, where photographer Brandon Stanton collects portraits of New Yorkers on the streets and shares short excerpts of his conversations with them. All of Hwang’s posts lead with a powerful photo and continue with a short story about his interaction with the subject of the photo. However, as one goes through the posts, it becomes abundantly clear that this is an entirely different animal from HONY. Where Stanton’s posts offer short glimpses into the lives of thousands of people, Hwang’s work is much more personal. He develops relationships with his subjects and often features the same person multiple times on his page.
If one walks with Hwang around Skid Row, it becomes abundantly clear how much he cares about his subjects.
When we were walking, he ran into a man named Walter who he has been interacting with for about a year and a half. The second Walter saw him, his eyes lit up and he rushed over to give Hwang a bear hug. Walter joined our party and pushed his shopping cart beside us as he shared everything that had happened to him since he had last seen John. The enthusiasm was that of a man who knows he is talking to someone who cares about what he is saying. Beyond his unbroken interest, his generosity was also on display. It was rainy and Hwang tried to give Walter his umbrella many times. Walter ultimately refused the gift but accepted a hot meal in its place. The stories flowed from Walter as he ate, and after pausing to take a picture when he had finished, they parted ways, again with a big hug from Walter. A few hours later, the update on Walter was up on the website. The feedback, as usual, was very warm. Walter talked at length about the positive response he received online after being featured on the website. He eventually teared up when talking about how one person told him that he was an inspiration because of his recycling efforts.
Walter’s story is an excellent demonstration of what this website can do. At first glance, he is not the sort of person one would strike up a conversation with. He shuffles along with his shopping cart. His speech is very slurred and difficult to understand, and his movements sputter. But beyond the initial and superficial, Walter’s incredible warmth comes through. This is a perfect representation of Hwang’s overall goal with Skid Row Stories.
The idea for the website first came to Hwang when he was a USC student volunteering with his church to feed the homeless on Skid Row.
“I began to notice that everyone was so focused on feeding as many people as they could that they weren’t taking the time to get to know these people so I went to the side and started to strike up conversations with people who were coming.”
Hwang said he believes that establishing a relationship with the homeless at Skid Row is an important aspect of helping them to improve their lives.
“You have to invest your time in order to develop the sort of relationships you need in order to make a difference.”
Hwang has certainly done that. He has been running Skid Row Stories for about two years and since its inception, he has sold off most of his possessions and moved into a small garage in order to focus on working on the website after work. Most nights of the week, Hwang walks around Skid Row with his camera until 2 a.m., looking for people to talk to and feature on the site.
“It has to happen organically,” Hwang said. “You can’t force a connection with these people. Some of these people have serious mental illnesses or drug addictions and that sometimes makes it next to impossible to strike up a conversation with them. But often it’s something as simple as seeing someone with something cool on a T-shirt and making a comment on it and going forward from there.”
It is this ability to establish a rapport with his subjects that allows this site’s stories so be so powerful. The featuring of the same subject many times introduces the element of time to the storytelling, and this, in turn, causes the subjects to become more real than HONY’s snapshots of people in a particular moment in time. This sort of impact is what Hwang is looking to create with his photos.
“I’m trying to be a bridge to these people by showing that they’re all really people with their own stories,” he said.