This summer, Samy’s Camera Outreach sponsored an art show and donation drive in Skid Row, with photographs by the artist known as “Suitcase Joe.”
For the past 5 years, Suitcase Joe – who prefers anonymity to “keep the focus on the people and images” – has spent his spare moments interviewing and photographing the residents of Skid Row. What started off as a personal mission to document Skid Row culture has become a trusted, authentic source of insight into the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles. In addition to his well-trafficked Instagram account, Suitcase Joe’s work has now been featured in an LA Weekly cover story, an NBC special report, and in numerous gallery shows around town.
As LA Weekly aptly noted, Suitcase Joe is part photojournalist, part artist, and part ethnographer. He’s unapologetically honest black & white images capture reality AS IS but with an artist’s appreciation for light and composition. Each Instagram portrait is accompanied by a caption, a piece of the person’s story – how they got there, the struggles they face, their hopes and fears for the future.
Struggle, fear, and hope – of these human conditions Skid Row has plenty.
The beginnings of Skid Row date all the way back to the 19th century, when railroad construction brought the first waves of transient workers (Salon). SRO’s (single room occupancy hotels) sprang up to meet the need for cheap, temporary housing. Waves of new transients followed with each generation. The Great Depression of the 1930’s brought desperate men heading west for work. The 60’s and 70’s brought Vietnam vets with drug addictions and trauma-related mental illness. The 80’s contributed not only victims of the crack epidemic, but also patients mass-discharged from government-run mental institutions (privatized under the Reagan administration).
The city decision in the 50’s and 60’s to demolish much of the SRO’s created a population of too many beleaguered people with nowhere to go. Missions, shelters, and religious organizations offered aid, but there were (and continue to be) too many people with too many problems to fix. As Suitcase Joe puts it: “To address the problem of homelessness, you’d have to attack all the reasons the people are there, and there’s just too many of those. Addiction, mental illness, abandonment, criminal records, poverty, loneliness, violence, desperation, despair – I don’t think those reasons will ever go away. As long as you have capitalism, you will have homelessness.”
Skid Row is just one part of the homelessness epidemic in Los Angeles, with over 55,000 homeless individuals as of 2017, in LA County alone (LA Weekly). Add in surrounding areas like Long Beach and Pasadena, and that number tops 91,000 (CRA/LA).
Certainly, people are trying to help. Mayor Garcetti made homelessness a central issue of his campaign. He helped get Proposition HHH passed, a $1.2-billion bond to build 10,000 affordable housing units. NIMBY, however, often hampers the construction of such housing, while skyrocketing rents and a growing housing shortage continue to exacerbate the problem. One can’t help but recall Joe’s words. “As long as you have capitalism…”
But Suitcase Joe is still helping, anyway. He’s putting faces to the statistics, humanizing a problem that requires, first and foremost, more humanity.
Here at Samy’s Camera Outreach, we wanted to help Suitcase Joe with his mission. An art show was devised to garner both awareness and donations, but also to gift the residents professionally printed portraits of themselves. So, one Sunday, we mounted matted images on a chain-link fence and handed out PB&Js with apples and clementines. Residents, press, art viewers, and Suitcase Joe fans gathered throughout the afternoon. Seven boxes of donated clothes, food, and supplies were collected and distributed.
Admittedly, it was difficult for me to witness the conditions of Skid Row, but I saw firsthand what Suitcase Joe proclaims with his portraits: Skid Row is home, for better or worse, to thousands of men and women. Skid Row is a community that has its own resource distribution system, the justice system, quarters, cliques, and comforts. These people need more help, undeniably, but in the meantime, they’re still people just trying to make a life out of being alive. Much like the rest of us, I couldn’t help but think, swapping smiles and stories with the people I met that day. Many of them had lived on that block for years, some for decades.
When the show concluded, the residents gathered to collect their portraits. They circled Suitcase Joe, a mood of jubilation and gratitude mixing with a somberness that can never quite be escaped on the streets of Skid Row.
We at Samy’s Camera Outreach are glad to support Suitcase Joe in his efforts.
Created in 2009, Samy’s Camera Photo Camp has taught thousands of students across Los Angeles. The afterschool course teaches fundamental concepts within different fields of photography, culminating in a gallery show of the students’ work. To bring Samy’s Photo Camp to your school, please contact the program director Deborah Cloyed at 323-938-2420 x ext. 1286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.