L.A. native John Hwang never intended to become the creator of the popular photo series Skid Row Stories, which documents and tells the struggles of those he encounters on Skid Row and the streets of L.A. The idea came from a chance encounter on a bridge in downtown L.A. when he was just trying to kill time and wait for traffic to die down:
"One day, when I was just hanging out in downtown. I was on this bridge and this homeless person started talking to me. So we're just having a conversation and then he tells me he was on the bridge because right before he saw me he was going to jump off and kill himself... He said that somehow our conversation made him feel better and gave him hope in life. So I went home that night and it just — I couldn't stop thinking about it. So after work the next day, I just wanted to start heading down to Skid Row to learn more about the homeless because I was so intrigued."
After that encounter, Hwang would visit Skid Row almost every day for the next three years.
"I think I was always curious about people's stories and about how people end up the way they do. This connection though, really sparked a strong desire to learn more and to take it a step further and to just hang out down in Skid Row. Before I used to just hang out in downtown and just hang out at the cafes and just kill my time there but I just started hanging out down at Skid Row all the time, just going straight to Skid Row. Just wanting to learn more about this community that people don't know about."
Even after Hwang began visiting Skid Row daily, it was never a goal of his to take photos of the people he encountered. However, the more he visited, the more people began to open up to him and share their stories.
"I just felt like, man, I can't keep this all to myself. I felt like, I got to start documenting this and sharing this at least with my friends...one of the things though, that I was very cautious of is I didn't want it to feel like I was exploiting them or that I'm doing this for myself in some way...I value these relationships and these stories so much I felt like, at least I got to share this with my friends...taking their photo was almost the very last thing that I wanted to do. So...at the very end I just would say 'hey, would it be okay if I took your photo?' and often times they would say 'I would never let anyone take my photo, except you because I know you care.' so that meant a lot."
When Hwang spoke with Take Two host A Martinez, he shared some of his favorite shots and stories from his encounters on Skid Row.
Hwang first spoke about Latoya, a prostitute he met while visiting Skid Row. While walking around downtown L.A. he would notice how her face would light up around dogs and then she said 'dogs would never hurt you like people do.' When he asked her what she meant, she shared her story:
"When she was young, she was repeatedly raped by her stepfather until she was 11 and then she ran away...but her family didn't even bother to look for her because they wanted to continue to collect welfare checks on her behalf. And then she ended up getting picked up by a pimp and then she was caught up in human trafficking and she was a child prostitute until she was in her late teens and then, when she contracted HIV, that's when they just kind of let her go. And since that point, she's been on drugs and she's said that she takes drugs because that's the only thing that numbs her from the pain of feeling worthless and lonely.
And we were walking in downtown and I remember she was looking at these mannequins on the windows of this clothing store and I saw the way she was just looking at the nice clothes...I turned to her and I said, 'hey let's go inside. I'll buy you whatever you want. I'll buy you whatever you want in the store'. She couldn't believe it, she just had this shocked look on her face. We went inside and she was trying on all these different things...and just seeing that excitement on her face...seeing someone that was so hardened from living on the street and her life I felt like at that moment I saw this little girl...that never had that validation, that never had someone treat her with respect."
Among the many photos Hwang has posted on the Skid Row Stories Facebook page, there are some that detail the journeys. The most prominent of those journeys is Walter.
Hwang describes him as a close friend, almost a brother. Walter had been homeless for about 15 years when he met Hwang and it was after the two became close that Walter made a change in his life.
"One day he [Walter] came up to me and he's like 'John, I'm going to get housing.' and I was so excited for him...and he was like...'It's because of you that I got housing...' and I didn't understand what he meant because I didn't do anything and I said 'What do you mean Walter?' and then he said 'Well, you believe in me more than I believe in myself. ' ...and he's on Facebook too, and he will read the stories that I post about him and a lot of my friends will write really encouraging comments and he'll see all of them and he'll read all of them and I think that gave him a lot of confidence and made him feel really good about himself and motivated him to want to do better."
After sharing some of his favorite stories, one thing is clear, Hwang doesn't have any kind of agenda for documenting these stories. When asked what he hopes people will take away from his ongoing photo series he responded:
"I want them to feel that same sort of intimacy or connection that I had, that I built with this person...I just want people to say, 'hey this is who this person is' and this is the kind of connection I had with them and it's up to you, it's up to the reader and so, I leave it up to you."
To hear the full interview, click the blue play button above.