This compelling project was selected as a finalist in the LensCulture Street Photography Awards 2016. Discover more inspiring work from all the winners, jurors’ picks and finalists.

Artist Statement

This series is a sample of some of the quirky, intense and fleeting moments I’ve witnessed while walking around Downtown LA (DTLA). The people and emotions pictured here are a glimpse of this relatively small inner-city center’s true character.

Many of the people that I photograph are fixtures in the area—they habitually occupy particular places at specific times during the day. Unfortunately, because of the difficulty and uncertainty faced by many residents of the area, some of the people pictured have disappeared from view. They remain unaccounted for despite my attempts to find out what happened to them.

—Suzanne Stein

Interview

“Down on Skid Row everything is textured, vibrant and run-down…As a former artist, I was initially drawn by the aesthetics of this intense area. There’s a lot of grime, wall art; packed full of distinctive people, with interesting faces and interesting hands.”

Street photographer Suzanne Stein has spent the last few years chronicling Downtown LA, and many photo series have spawned from her dedication to documenting this area.

“I was blown away by the squalor of the city—Los Angeles is one of the dirtiest places that I’ve been in a developed country. It’s hard to believe that the core area of one of the world’s most glamorous cities looks like this.”

In her work, LA’s flashy stereotypes are flipped on their head and Stein offers us a true flavor of this unique neighborhood. By introducing the fixtures of Skid Row and highlighting the harsh reality for the marginalized people who occupy these streets, she draws attention to the disregarded living there.

“The whole problem with Los Angeles is that there are so many people that have been left to rot, and nobody’s doing much about it. It’s almost like a barn that’s burning and they’re just keeping the barn doors closed until it burns out.”

Stein speaks passionately about the apathy of the state towards the mentally ill and the physically disabled who live Downtown. Despite the proximity to a police station (just around the corner from Skid Row), there’s a distinct lack of police intervention, or even basic attention. “There are people on Skid Row that are lying in their own excrement and passers-by, even the police, just don’t care, they don’t seem to register it at all.”

In her photographs, Stein is inspired by a combination of aesthetic curiosity and social reform. She describes the way she shoots as a “visceral reaction” to what she sees in front of her. “Something will grab me: sometimes an emotional pull, sometimes an aesthetic one. It’s an energy, which usually revolves around one person.” Navigating her way through Skid Row with a Fujifilm X-Pro2 and a flashgun, Stein says that this instinctive energy translates into a bold and explicit shooting style. “I don’t shoot from the hip—I don’t believe in that practice. I’ll hang around and get the picture I want. Once the person leaves, I move on—the energy’s gone.”

Some of her photographs are hard-hitting. She often contrasts the “haves” and the “have-nots,” while getting up close and personal with her subjects and looking out for material that will shock her audience. In true “fearless flashgun” form, this can seem insensitive and unapologetically invasive. Yet her objective is far removed from providing an opportunity for people to gawk at her subjects, like animals in a cage. Rather, she is motivated by the universal problem of how so many of us turn a blind eye towards the homeless.

Her up front aesthetic is not to exploit her subjects but rather to demand society’s attention, using both the absurd and the uncensored to grab it.

Indeed, the question of ethics is a big sticking point. Photographing the marginalized is a tricky question for every street practitioner, and some find the line can blur when trying to shoot with a moral compass. While Stein regards her work as documentation for the purpose of social reform, it’s also possible to view her images of people who are high, homeless and struggling as unhelpful. Stein is sensitive to the issue and openly admits it can be problematic. Her take on it is, like her photos, forthright and honest; “This is something I really struggle with. I have a very deep and driving desire to ‘expose’ or help spread awareness of people that are in desperate need of help. I try not to take pictures of people that are mean and snarky, but in some respects you have to be a little cold-hearted to get your shot. No matter how much you’re focused on social documentation, you have to be a bit of a shark about it—otherwise you wouldn’t pick the camera up.”

Ultimately, Stein takes bold photos that hit you in the face, because people need to be hit in the face to acknowledge the problem of homelessness. The viewer may be lured in by uncensored scenes of hard drug use, the drama of street fights, or the initial humour of exposed body parts, but the initial titillation subsides and leaves us to contemplate the sobering, underlying messages.

Hoping that her photographs will “expose” the way the marginalized are treated by society, Stein wants people to register the obvious: victimizing those on the edge is part of what leads to homelessness and drug abuse in the first place. Ignoring the issue only makes it worse and so we must confront it head-on.

—Francesca Cronan

Francesca Cronan is a contributing writer for LensCulture as well as Vice UK. More of her work can be found on her website and on Twitter.