Oahu Photographer Discovers Her Father Amongst Her Homeless Subjects

Originally published on Bokeh on 10 August 2015

Sometimes the world may seem like a larger place than it really is.

The concept of six degrees of separation is more accurate than it has ever been, and that stranger that you capture in your next street portrait may turn out to be a friend of a friend, an acquaintance you know over the internet, or even, as in case of 30-year-old Oahu photographer Diana Kim — your estranged father.

Diana Kim / NBC Asian America

“I grew up on the island of Maui and consider the islands to be home. My father owned a photography studio at one time, so my earliest introduction to photography was through him.”

In a recent interview with NBC News, Kim mentioned that her family seperated during her childhood as her father became increasingly “absent.” She had to spend years moving from house to house, sometimes with relatives, sometimes with friends, and sometimes even in nearby parks.

Diana Kim / NBC Asian America

As a student in 2003, Kim began a photo essay that sought to highlight the extensive homeless community in Hawaii. Despite a low unemployment rate that remains below 5%, Hawaii has one of the highest homeless populations in the country, mainly due to soaring housing costs.

A few years after she began her project, her grandmother told her that her father’s mental health had been deteriorating for years and that he had refused to take care of himself by eating, bathing, or taking medication. In fact, Kim’s grandmother wasn’t even sure where he was living at that time.

“June 5, 2014.” by Diana Kim / NBC Asian America

While documenting her project one day in 2012, Kim found her father wandering among the homeless in Honolulu; he had lost an extraordinary amount of weight and couldn’t even recognise her.

“A woman came by and told me to ‘not bother,’ because he stood there all day. 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.’”

Kim came to visit her father often over the next few years, attempting to reconnect and help him recover. She documented her efforts frequently with whatever camera she had on hand.

“Photographing my own father actually began as a mechanism of protecting myself at first. I would raise my camera phone in front of me, almost as if that barrier would help keep me together. It hurt to see him like this.

“April 12, 2013” by Diana Kim / NBC Asian America

Some days I would literally just stand there and stare downwards because I couldn’t get myself to see him in the condition he was in. My own flesh and blood, but still such a stranger to me…Many of the photographs were shot haphazardly. The photographer in me knew that these images needed to be created, that I needed to have them as a record for myself — a reminder that this was real even after I walked away.”

Diana Kim / NBC Asian America

“There were nights when I wouldn’t find him. And other days when I least expected it, and he would be standing on the corner of a street. He suffered from severe schizophrenia and, left untreated, he was not always responsive. There were many instances when it appeared as if he was arguing with someone, but nobody was there. I can’t count the number of times I sat next to my father on the street, wondering how his future would look like.”

Diana Kim / NBC Asian America

“I would sit there and pray quietly, just asking for a miracle and wishing that he would accept assistance. He would refuse to get treatment, take any medications, eat, bathe, or wear new clothes. I wasn’t sure if he would get better. There were times when I thought he would die there on that street.”

Diana Kim / NBC Asian America

“My father had a heart attack while on the street, and someone cared enough to call the police. He was taken to a hospital and was then placed on medications. He eventually stabilized and his mental health conditions were addressed. Having the heart attack truly saved his life. It gave him the opportunity to get back on a treatment plan. And he has been on it ever since.”

Diana Kim / NBC Asian America

“Every day is a gift. Some days are more challenging than others, but seeing my father in the flesh is a constant reminder of the strength of the human spirit and how precious life is. I never had a relationship with my father growing up, and there was a lot he did and didn’t do that hurt me, but I have chosen to forgive him so we can move forward.”

Diana Kim / NBC Asian America

“My father is doing really well today. He is really proud of the fact that he has overcome such incredible adversity…He has goals, he has hope, and he has the will to succeed…Our relationship today is still very new. I would like to take him out to watch a movie soon. I have never watched a movie with him! We are taking things day-by-day.”

Diana Kim / NBC Asian America

“Photography is not just about creating images — it is my window to experiencing the world and sharing relationships with people and things that I am drawn to. Looking through the lens and capturing that moment also captures my feelings in that moment.”

Diana Kim / NBC Asian America

“I think that, without the camera, I would have felt too naked and vulnerable to approach my father. I don’t think I could have made the same journey without the purpose of documenting his journey as well. My goal, long before my father ever became homeless, was to humanize those who lived on the streets. They each have a story, and I hope that by sharing my own story, it helps to give new perspective.”

Diana Kim / NBC Asian America

“So long as we are alive in this world, every day is an opportunity to take hold of that ‘second chance.’ There is no failure unless you give up, and he never gave up. And I haven’t given up on him.”

Head over to Diana’s blog The Homeless Paradise for updates on this story or her website to view her ongoing work.