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On most days, a photographer who goes by “Suitcase Joe” spends his spare time — lunch break, before or after work, weekends — docu-
menting the people and culture of Skid Row. Somewhere between photojournalist and artist (with certain appetites of an ethnog- rapher), he captures the casual drama of an extreme environment: quotidian rhythms, granular textures, fleeting emotions. In- timate and raw, his photos often bypass voyeurism in favor of presence, proximity and empathy. It’s the kind of image-making you imagine springing from intuitive move- ment, or patient immersion.
“I feel like they become dehumanized, homeless people and street people. People overlook them — they just stop looking at them,” Joe says, adding that he hopes those scrolling through his Instagram account, so far the primary outlet for his work, will “care enough to come down there too and help in different ways, or be more aware of people with those kinds of issues in their own neighborhoods, as opposed to just turning a blind eye to them.”
Attuned to the impact of simple gestures for people so routinely denied them, he makes a point of shaking people’s hands, or offering a hug — “regardless of how long they’ve been on the street or how dirty they might be,” he says. “I really like the people down there. I find something really touching about [our interactions] and I learn a lot. And it kind of moves me.”
A writer with no formal photography training, Joe tends to prioritize content over form, posting images because he thinks they
shooting skid row
Photographer “Suitcase Joe” gets close-up with the city’s homeless people
by beige Luciano-adams • Photos by suitcase Joe
feel connected to the whole neighborhood.” Some days, he just reports on the weather, reminding that “a bottle of cold water could
go a long way right now.”
“I feel like Skid Row kind of gives me little
gifts. I’ll walk around the corner sometimes and see something that strikes me,” he says. “But I also believe that some days I have to not go in there with my camera, and go and give out water, or food, or buy people socks and stuff. I feel like it’s kind of a give-and- take relationship. I always try to take care of people — if I take photos of them, I give them money or other things. But other times I feel it’s important to go down there, hang out and just talk to people. ... It’s a community down there.”
He now gets daily inquiries, including re- quests for tours from other photographers who think Skid Row is a destination (he de- clines), and from family members asking him to keep an eye out for their loved ones (he tries).
“People don’t all want their picture taken and you have to do it respectfully, feel it out,” Joe says. “I see a few (photographers) but they come and go quickly. Or they stick to the outskirts. Not that many people go what I call ‘deep’ into Skid Row. ... Each situation is different. A lot of people there have mental health issues and it’s not just because you have a camera. ... It’s because they’ve been pushed into a very small area and they’re not always all that self-aware.”
He watches the borders ebb and flow, up to Main and back down to Los Angeles Street. Over the last six months to a year, he’s watched the opioid epidemic playing out.
“I see like 10 times more people shooting
need to be seen. “The way I think about it long-term is somebody might look back on these photos 100 years from now and it’s a piece of history. ... I like to post a lot and not hold back, so it’s out there.”
It started with an idea, nearly a decade ago, of how he thought Skid Row ought to be documented — in gritty, timeless black-and- white — but took a few years of observing before he decided to pick up a camera. (He keeps his biographical details, as well as what he shoots with, to himself.) Since then, his penchant for simple compositions, both portrait and candid, has begun to articulate a unique style, with glimpses of formidable artistry.
Snapshots of daily life — cooking on a por- table grill, washing clothes at a fire hydrant, music, pets, fashion, scrambled signifiers of domesticity, affection, a sign on a tent that says “Together is our favorite place to be” — all in the same space as the wrenching
vulnerability, shocking violence and deep despair you might expect, force viewers to see Skid Row simultaneously as both war zone and home.
People ravaged by drugs and neglect, life- times on the street, in Joe’s images become part of a narrative of survival. He documents their transformation, often for the worse, or just their continued presence against all odds.
Asked if he feels conflicted about photo- graphing people with questionable agency, he admits he can’t always ask permission to shoot, in cases where mental illness precludes that conversation, but insists he approaches everyone with respect.
A lifetime obsession with “old hobo cul- ture” informs both his moniker and his aesthetic sensibilities, and a general fasci- nation with underworlds and outsiders is evident. He draws on a broader sense of his- tory and folklore, reading about Skid Row in Bukowski, Bunker, Chandler — “it makes me
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