Way back when, #itchysilk was captivated by the photographer Suzanne Stein whose images of Skid Row had/have all the impact of a swift hind leg kick in the rib cage from a thorough breed racing horse.
The power coming from her proximity to the characters who make up this small area of Los Angeles. Yes, we see these characters in the images but more than that we feel intimately close to them because they are individuals-indeed we see them more as people and we are interested in their life and journeys.
Fiercely protective of the characters she captures, we were finally able to talk to her about her images, her passion and how she (unlike many photographers before) enters this alien world and achieves stunning reportage photography.
Without photography one gets the sense you would be lost.
Photography means much more to me than drawing ever did. I can express, explain, and experience the world with my camera. I can also cut loose and try to be humorous when I see something that strikes me but more importantly I can outline irony and things that I find, details and larger issues which are unfair or unjust.
Explain the importance of the ‘subject’ in your work because rather than sterile images you seem keen on bringing real depth, context and intimacy.
The subject is everything…it’s what separates a great image from a lackluster bore. Whether it’s a dog, a person there’s an energy that living creatures have. Sometimes it’s very compelling and who knows why? Some people can leave me distinctly cold. The trick in making an image is choosing people and animals that have a feeling of specialness, at least to me.
‘Photography is more than taking pictures’-explain.
I think photography is very important because it allows us to attempt to explain, to apply contextual elements to sometimes disparate visuals, creating combinations that can enlighten, explain, expose things in life and society that are felt but not understood, or to effectively use various visual cues to highlight ideas that the photographer thinks are important. There are too many meaningless images that we’re bombarded by every day, advertising, fashion, Facebook memes it just makes people either more appreciative of quality or renders them completely unable to recognise true value in a photograph…I’m not sure which.
How do you gain the trust of the characters?
It’s not a process when gaining trust on the street. People size you up, you do the same, and it either happens or it doesn’t. People will tend to give respect to those who are honest and up front and who are there because they are ‘into it’…people can detect true desire.
Explain the process of physically entering their world which must have been so alien to you.
It happened gradually. At first it was very disconcerting and I was uncomfortable and somewhat distracted by my nerves but I’m well used to it now. Actually it took a very short time to become accustomed to the physical surroundings once I was immersed. Some emotional situations I’m not used to and never will be. For example the way people who are imperfect are cast off and left to rot not used to that yet….
Was there a familiar narrative to the lives of those on the streets?
They want to sometimes, most times get high. Truthfully, it’s a driving force and comes first before all else. Some will speak of when they’re “off the street” but it’s an abstraction. You must understand the degree of degradation that they allow themselves to experience in order to make a few dollars. Prostitution on Skid Row is profoundly degrading, indescribable and at times hopelessly devoid of good conduct on the part of the men who patronize these women. Although plenty guys are nice guys who drive in, they pick up a woman, it is far from clean and many times they can be severely ill physically or mentally ill-these men then go home to their wives- I’ve seen them myself.
How prevalent is drug use in Skidrow and indeed did you understand the cycle that some of the people were in?
It’s all about drugs for a significant percentage of people. The others are mentally or physically handicapped or mentally ill. There are many who are just down on their luck and who are coming from extreme economic and educational deprivation and therefore wind up on Skid Row and remain trapped and brutally unhappy for long periods of time. I thought it was mostly poor, homeless people that had no control over their lives but in fact there are many resources available if people are willing to take the steps necessary. Drugs are the tie that binds, solidly cementing people to the neighbourhood.
What did/do you learn personally from your time there and indeed did you make real friendships?
Real friends give back and I can say that some do but it’s difficult to bridge the significant gulfs that exist between me and them because in a true friendship people must feel equal to one another and people living in this environment are not always feeling great about themselves or their lives….. real friends it’s hard to say.