This Photographer Was Documenting Homeless People When She Got a Life-Changing Surprise

The young woman walks through the busy streets, snapping photographs of people that the world seems to have forgotten. For ten years she has captured their lost and lonely faces, their gaunt frames and their makeshift homes.

As she approaches an emaciated man standing in the street, a passer-by tells her not to bother – that he will stand there all day long. But as she regards his face she sees something hauntingly familiar and knows that she has to try.

When Diana Kim was a child on the island of Maui, Hawaii, her father owned a photography studio. What’s more, she used to help him by breaking open disposable cameras to get the films out for processing.

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By the time she was eight years old, Kim’s parents had separated and her relationship with her father had become strained. Nevertheless, the love of photography he had instilled in her remained throughout her teenage years.

In 2003 Kim began studying at the University of Hawaii. Looking for inspiration for her first photo essay, she decided to focus on the homeless people she saw around her.

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Kim had moved around a lot with her mother and spent much of her youth flitting between friends and relatives’ homes. Sometimes, she had even resorted to sleeping in cars or in parks.

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Because of these experiences, she saw herself in the people she met on the streets. Having always longed for a more stable home, she identified with those lacking a place to call their own.

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That first photo essay began a passion that would last for more than ten years. Over the years, she snapped many photos of people living on the streets of Honolulu, H.I., but nothing could have prepared her for what was to come.

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At some point in 2012 Kim received an upsetting call from her grandmother. Her father was ill, she was told; there was “something wrong with his mind.”

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People had begun to complain about his appearance in the apartment building where he lived. When his lease ran out it was not renewed, and he was evicted from his home.

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By the time Kim returned from her law fellowship in Washington D.C., her father had joined the many homeless people living rough on the streets of Honolulu. Immediately, she set out looking for him – and what she found would break her heart.

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Eventually, she discovered him. He was standing at a busy intersection, staring but seemingly not seeing. She shouted out his name, but he didn’t react.

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Kim’s father had become a shell of his former self. Emaciated and suffering from schizophrenia, he didn’t recognize the daughter he had helped raise.

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Although some of her friends and family members advised her to walk away, Kim found a different way of coping with the traumatic situation. Just as she had been doing for the last decade, she turned to her photography to document the pain she saw in front of her. Only this time, her own father was the one in front of the lens.

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“Photographing my father actually began as a mechanism of protecting myself at first,” she told NBC Asian America, “I would raise my camera phone in front of me, almost as if that barrier would help keep me together.”

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Because Kim was unable to interact with her father, she used her photography as a kind of therapy. Snapping images allowed her to document the suffering he was going through and gave her an opportunity to process her feelings.

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Sometimes when she visited him, she found herself unable to look directly at him, resulting in abstract images of shoes and feet. Other days, she wouldn’t be able find him at all, spending hours searching in vain. Kim began to suspect that her father would die on the streets.

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Then, in 2014, her father had a heart attack and was taken into hospital – an event that, ironically, saved his life. While there, he began a treatment plan for his mental illness, and slowly the man that Diana had known and loved began to return.

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Today, she is helping her father on the road to recovery, supporting him in his bid to become a taxi driver. She has also released a book called The Homeless Paradise, which documents her experiences with her father and other people living on the streets in Hawaii.

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Although every day is still a struggle, Kim is full of hope for her father’s future. “There is no failure unless you give up,” she said, “and he never gave up. And I haven’t given up on him.”

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