Street Photographer Suitcase Joe Captures the Unfiltered Beauty of Skid Row

Street Photographer Suitcase Joe

Beneath the Surface and Behind the Lens

“I just get down there and get into it.”

~Suitcase Joe on how he takes such poignant photographs.

If you ever wonder where the United States’ housing crisis is headed, look no further than Los Angeles’ most infamous tent city to date – Skid Row. PBS once referred to Skid Row as an example of “third world poverty in our first world country.” Fox Business called it “the epicenter of the homeless crisis.” The LA Times declared it the “collapse of a city that’s lost control.”

For this reason and many more, Skid Row has served as a speaking point for politicians, a muse for artists, authors, and documentarians, a refuge for abandoned travelers, and a soft spot in even the hardest of hearts.

While many have tried, few photographers have managed to capture the heartbreak within this vulnerable community. Fewer still, have managed to capture the heart. Yet the humble homeless advocate and anonymous street photographer known only as Suitcase Joe has managed to do both. We caught up with him over the phone lines and learned more about Skid Row than we ever bargained for. Below is the exclusive interview from the man who goes beneath the surface every time he gets behind the lens.

Invisible People:

I just want to start by letting you know that me and the entire team at Invisible People feel really honored that you are sharing your story with us. Our goal is to educate people with the true story of homelessness, and we feel that you have a lot to add to that conversation.

In your own words, could you please describe yourself to people who are not familiar with your work, exactly who you are and what you do?

Suitcase Joe:

I’m an anonymous street photographer and I spend a lot of time walking around Skid Row meeting people and taking their photos and hanging out with them. Unlike some other photographers, I like to spend real, actual quality time with the people I photograph.

Invisible People:

What inspires you to take these photographs?

Suitcase Joe:

I think it’s a multitude of things. I love black and white street photography. And I also care deeply about homeless people. And that has kind of transpired specifically to the people of Skid Row. There’s a whole community down there and I just kind of fell in love with the place and the people there. It started as something much smaller and it has organically grown into something much bigger.

Invisible People:

Can you share any personal stories – moments that touched you and shaped you, and made you the artist that you are today?

Suitcase Joe:

There’s not a lot of big moments, but there’s a lot of little moments that impact me when I’m in Skid Row. There are people down there who really have nothing at all. I have come to know them as friends. They invite me into their tents to let me hang out and really see who they are. They have so little, yet they’re kind enough to offer me their food and time. It amazes me to see such generosity coming from people who lack even basic essentials, many of whom have been let down by the greed in our own society.

Another example of a touching little moment is sometimes when I write about somebody, I see them again. I’ll let them read what I wrote about them. I let them read people’s comments. I’ve seen this bring tears to their eyes quite a few times.

They’re so moved to learn that people from the outside world are getting a chance to actually hear their voices and see them for who they are. I find that very touching.

Invisible People:

What does Skid Row look like through your eyes? What can you tell us about the community and the people there?

Suitcase Joe:

Skid Row is a multifaceted place. It’s a little bit of everything. It’s very beautiful and it’s also very ugly, but most of all it’s very honest.

You have areas where people have lived there a lot longer – some of them 20 years, 30 years in a tent, you know, even though they move around a little bit, those areas tend to be a little calmer. Then you have areas where the people are more transient because of the missions and programs. This is where you’ll meet people who struggle sometimes with drug addictions.

All in all, even with how chaotic it is with the tents and various people’s stuff on the sidewalk, it’s still actually a very beautiful place.

Invisible People:

How do you take such candid photos?

Suitcase Joe:

(Chuckles) So you want my secret?

Okay, here it is … You have to get close to the people you’re taking photos of and not just with your camera.

I like to hang out with people and I get to know them. Once they relax and I feel like I know things about them, that’s when I take their photo. I don’t just walk up to them and take it. Because I’m so in touch with this community, sometimes people kind of forget that I’m there. That’s when I get the most candid shots.

Invisible People:

Aha. So that’s your secret. Well, we don’t have to reveal it if you don’t want us to.

Suitcase Joe:

No, really, I don’t mind. I don’t think many people want to spend as much time as I do in Skid Row.

Invisible People:

Your love for that community really shines through in your photography. As you well know, the number of homeless people in Los Angeles continues to dramatically increase. Through your personal lens, could you expand on this concept? What are some of the contributing factors you’ve seen?

Suitcase Joe:

From what I’ve personally seen, there are two major factors. Of course, there are other secondary factors, but the two main factors I’m seeing are the housing prices as they continue to rise, as well as the opiate and crystal meth epidemics. In terms of increased housing prices, I feel like we’re really losing our middle-class. A lot more people are just unable to afford housing. Because of this, there are a lot more “I can’t believe this happened to me” stories of homelessness in the area. These are the people who are surprised to have found themselves on the streets. They have jobs, education, etc.

But the other side of it is also the opiate and crystal meth epidemics. For the past 5 years now, I’ve been walking around Skid Row almost on a daily basis. I have seen a rise in people using both of those drugs and those drugs really strip people of everything. Under the influence of those drugs, you’re not really able to maintain in society anymore. And I think that leaves them out to living in the streets.

Invisible People:

One of our favorite things about your photos is the in-depth stories told both through visual imagery and text. Is there any story that’s really stand out in your mind?

Suitcase Joe:

It’s kind of hard for me to see someone that stands out. I love them all for different reasons, but much like someone loves their children, I love them all the same.

Invisible People:

You mentioned in an LA Weekly interview that you feel homeless people are often dehumanized. By making the problem more visual, what do you wish to accomplish?

Suitcase Joe:

Oh, that’s a great question. I do want my photos to help re-humanize them and I think the stories are what take it a little bit further. When we have connections with people that’s how we’re able to really relate to them and to see them as human beings.

I think with homelessness it’s easy for people to feel like, it’s out of sight out of mind, not my problem. You know, they just take somebody for what they see on the surface. But once you start to know somebody and learn a little bit of where they came from and why they’re there, it’s human nature to end up caring more, and that’s exactly what I try to do with my photos.

Invisible People:

You often mention history. Is history a major influence to your artistry?

Suitcase Joe:

Yeah, and on a lot of different levels. I mean, I think about my photos sometimes and I imagine somebody looking at my photos from like a hundred years from now. I really want to accurately document Skid Row and the people there. I want to do that better than anybody ever has, and in a way that people can look back on it and it really understand how many people were there and the kinds of people and their everyday struggles and triumphs.

I’m also deeply fascinated with hobo culture and the Dust Bowl era stuff, and photographers over the years from documentarian street photographers to war photographers that captured real life. Through these images, that’s how we really get to see and know our history. I hope to contribute to that someday.

Invisible People:

Do you see any parallels between Skid Row and the people who lived during the Dust Bowl Era?

Suitcase Joe:

I do see parallels in the way that people are living, and also in the way they’re ending up on Skid Row.

A lot of people who are living on the streets right now, much like in the Dust Bowl era, were just really caught off guard. Many people I meet have said they came to poverty overnight, which does parallel that part of history.

Invisible People:

Do you think it’s possible that someday homelessness itself will be ancient history, or do you think it will remain an ugly page in our present-day lives?

Suitcase Joe:

I honestly think that it’s not going anywhere. I think that the type of capitalism our nation is leaning toward – and I’m not anti-capitalism – but this era’s brand of capitalism, which largely caters to the elite, creates homelessness. On the bright side, I do think that we could greatly reduce the numbers of it by changing the way we handle drug addiction, mental health issues, and housing.

Invisible People:

How does weather effect your scenes and subjects?

Suitcase Joe:

A lot of people try not to go down when it rains, but I always try to go down there when it rains…

During a storm, the people there are a little busier with themselves and don’t have as much time for me. I kind of have to take a step back because they’re basically trying to keep dry and to save their belongings.

And then when it’s really hot out, it’s honestly a little more dangerous down there because tempers rise with the temperatures. You can sense a lot more tension down there during hot weather. When it’s cold people have to find ways to keep warm. It’s not Arctic but we do we do have pretty cold winters. If you’re sleeping on the sidewalk every night, people will get pneumonia and other illnesses. They get sick because of the elements. Also, different weather calls for different survival modes.

Invisible People:

How do you feel about homelessness as it relates to LA and the Olympic Games?

Suitcase Joe:

Well, I’ve heard rumors that they’re going to try to get rid of Skid Row for the Olympics. And I cannot confirm that but, if this is true, I feel it’s infuriating because Skid Row is a community. They’re not trying to solve the problem either, they’re just trying to push them out of sight of the cameras because they’re worried about the world watching. If this is true, I have a big problem with that and I think people should protest it.

Skid Row is a known area for street residents to go and because of that a lot of people come down there. A lot of people go there to hand out food, and blankets, all kinds of sanitary items and other things that people need. If they move it, they’re really not helping. They’re simply displacing them yet again.

Invisible People:

What was the hardest moment you ever captured on camera?

Suitcase Joe:

I don’t know if you want to write about this, but I’ll tell you…

It was during a really bad rainstorm, one of our worst rain storms, and I went down to Skid Row and I came upon a man. He was lying naked in the street with water rushing over his feet and he’s foaming out the side of his mouth. He was od’ing and I noticed his neighbors on the left and right of him were busy setting up tarps in their tent but they didn’t really look at him. People treated him as if he was just a piece of trash in the street. People were just walking past him, looking past him.

I immediately called 911 and I asked people how long he’d been there, but they just seemed like they couldn’t be bothered. Somebody finally threw a jacket over him. Thankfully, the paramedics got there in under 3 minutes, but I’m not sure if he made it. That always resonates with me.

I grapple with the fact that I still took a photo of it. Ultimately, I feel like I took that photo because it’s a powerful image and I think when people see it, they will understand how bad it is down there. Still, I haven’t had the heart to release that photo and I’m not sure if I ever will. That was hard for me, all of that was hard for me, not just taking the photo but living through it.

Invisible People:

Do you carry the stress of Skid Row home with you in your camera?

Suitcase Joe:

Yeah. I have a friend who thinks I should seek counseling for second hand PTSD, but I think that I’m fine…

But I have a hard time going out with friends now. When people spend money so frivolously, and in the way that we live on this side of society where we’re very wasteful.

I’m not here to tell people they shouldn’t enjoy life, but because of being down there so much and becoming friends with some of the people there, I have a hard time dealing with wastefulness knowing so many of our fellow human beings have nothing. It’s really opened my eyes a lot.

I will say this and I don’t know where it fits, but one of the things that I’ve really come to love and appreciate about Skid Row is that people who live there – because of the way they live in constant survival mode – they really live in the now. If I’m hungry, I eat. if I’m mad, I speak my mind, etc.

Here, we try to retreat and read books about that, about being in the moment. People in Skid Row just live in the moment. It’s part of their survival.

Invisible People:

What was the most inspirational moment you ever captured on camera?

Suitcase Joe:

It’s not a specific moment. It’s more the feeling I have when I walk away. Beyond all the ugly things about Skid Row, there’s so many beautiful things. People down there do not judge each other. That is really something that moves me. You can be a prostitute. You can be a drug addict. You can have been in the Olympics and now you are living on the streets for whatever reason.

People don’t care. You’re just another person down there and they don’t judge you for what you do and it is really kind of beautiful.

Invisible People:

You’ve discussed homelessness and mental health issues. Do you think that some people are taken advantage of due to mental illness?

Suitcase Joe:

There are way too many people down there being taken advantage of because of mental illness. More so, women are taken advantage of down there because of mental illness. Some really horrific things are happening down there to them. They’re not really taken seriously.

Invisible People:

Do you feel connected to your subjects? And if so, what is this connection?

Suitcase Joe:

I do feel connected to them. I identify strongly with struggle and poverty due to the way I grew up. I dealt with some alcoholism in my family and it’s been through Skid Row that I’ve learned to forgive and really get on with my life.

Invisible People:

Where do you see Skid Row in 10 Years?

Suitcase Joe:

Well, my worry is that they’re going to keep building condos and pushing it away, and refining it.

Still, I feel like no matter what happens, the spirit of that community will always be there, drawing people close together in their time of need.

Follow Suitcase Joe on Instagram.


We at Invisible People hope that this interview served our readers with a dose of reality. Remember to speak with your local representatives about ending homelessness, as opposed to simply pushing tent cities further down the road.


Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith

     

Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

Related Topics



Your support can create amazing change

Join the campaign to end homelessness by supporting the only newsroom focused solely on the topic of homelessness. Our original reporting — posted five to seven days a week — can also be found on Apple News and Google News. Through storytelling, education, news, and advocacy, we are changing the narrative on homelessness.

Invisible People is a nonprofit organization. We rely on the support of friends like you — people who understand that well-written, carefully researched stories can change minds about this issue. And that’s what leads to true transformation and policy change. Our writers have their fingers on the pulse of homeless communities. Many are formerly or currently homeless themselves. They are the real experts, passionate about ending homelessness. Your support helps us tell the true story of this crisis and solutions that will end it. Your donations help make history by telling the real story of homelessness to inspire tangible actions to end it.

Your donation, big or small, will help bring real change.

DONATE NOW



Get the Invisible People newsletter


RECENT STORIES

17 Years in the Military to 10 Years Homeless in Los Angeles

Bob

Van Life NOT by Choice: Elderly Homeless Woman Needs Housing

Cindy

homeless man in venice beach

Derrick

los angeles homeless man

Daniel


RECENT ARTICLES

veterans row

The True Price of Freedom: A Look at Veterans Row

homeless in Phoenix Arizona

DOJ Probing Treatment of Homeless People by Phoenix Police Department

Donel Wheeler

Youth Who Experienced Homelessness Authors Two Books

property rights for homeless people

Federal Court Rules Homeless People Have Property Rights

Get the Invisible People newsletter