Intervju: Suzanne Stein – A story from Skid Row

I don’t think that ethics and morality should ever stand in the way of a meaningful image, especially when there are large populations of people living in poverty or unfair conditions without representation of any kind .  Sometimes I don’t take pictures of course….I don’t ever photograph accidents, or if someone is sick… unless it was a critical part of a visual narrative 

Interview by: Igor Coko

Photo: Suzanne Stain / http://www.suzannesteinphoto.com/ All rights reserved

Suzanne Stein is one of the most important life and street photographers. These words are strong on many levels. All you need is to see her work, storytelling and approach to people. She became worldwide famous by her incredible and haunting photographs taken of homeless residents on Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row. She captured the images as she follows locals, many with drug addictions , and documents their everyday lives.

“I started taking pictures while on a trip to Europe in June 2015.  Previously, I had been an artist that worked primarily with pencil, ink, and graphite.  When I started,  I was using an iPhone.  I knew almost immediately that photography was going to turn my life upside down, and that I would be able to use my personal life experiences in a way that I’d never imagined.   A month later, I bought a camera.  Now, when I think of my life, I think:  Before camera, and Now.   I can take my camera, and, together with whoever or whatever happens to be in front of me, tell a dynamic, ever changing story….I am especially captivated by people who present to me in an emotionally challenging manner, and who have an intensity that’s immediate and complete.  They force me to adapt to the present in order to make a picture that is my best effort at accurately conveying and representing the person or circumstance that is apparent to me in the few seconds it took to record the image.  Everything and everyone can change in an instant, and nothing is ever the same twice.  This provides tremendous motivation for me, and is the most powerful and important aspect of the pursuit of a picture I’m reasonably satisfied with.   I’m always after a narrative of some kind, whether it’s at a parade, the beach, or in an economically deprived neighborhood in Los Angeles.  I love minute, insubstantial instants as well as images that attempt a strong social document. One moment in an image can convey everything from an everyday instant to a big, heavy truth that people from wildly different backgrounds can absorb almost instantly.  These narratives are present everywhere,  running through everyone’s reality, and if I’m able to do the job effectively, a picture can tell a story no matter where it was taken”, she wrote in her biography at her website.

“I first saw Skid Row in a drive through downtown Los Angeles.  I was immediately captivated by all of the people, it was crazy and loud and electric. I just really felt compelled to photograph it.  Skid Row is a place where people who don’t have homes live, many in tents.  It is a dumping ground for the mentally ill, and mentally handicapped.  Lots of drug abuse….but also many great people full of life as well” Suzanne said in her interview given to Grain.

The most important thing, by my oppinion in your work is story telling, sense and feeling you have to the people from the streets. Long, detailed and deep description in captures people can read at your blog and website. How hard and important is that kind of approach?

Narrative is critical for me….I do like fast and fun images that don’t necessarily tell a story or are stylized but in general, even a fast snap should tell a story of some kind, in a moment. Without narrative you have nothing as far as I’m concerned….

How far you have to go to tell the story?

Sometimes very far… I do what I have to do and almost always no matter what I live doing it.  It’s not for everyone, working w a camera in Skid Row or places similarly afflicted but there are many rewards.

While working, did you get into situation to miss the shot because of some ethical or moral reason?

I don’t think that ethics and morality should ever stand in the way of a meaningful image, especially when there are large populations of people living in poverty or unfair conditions without representation of any kind .  Sometimes I don’t take pictures of course….I don’t ever photograph accidents, or if someone is sick… unless it was a critical part of a visual narrative 

Does it all affects to you personally? Where is the line between empathy and photography?

Yes it affects me but mostly afterward.. When I’m shooting I often don’t think hard about what’s being said because I’m so focused on making an image .  Later on it can be profoundly affecting though and has permanently changed my outlook and feelings about life and people. 

You have been out of Skid Row for some time. What is the difference at the streets worldwide at the places you visited and Skid Row?

I went back to Skid Row recently, and will return for the summer I think.  Other places in the world that are in poverty are worse… in Skid Row, although it’s dangerous and dirty and rough, there’s food st the missions three times a day, policemen who try hard, religious groups that drive through … People there get some attention.  In other parts of the world like Istanbul it’s much, much more brutal.

What has happened there in the meantime, with the people from your photos, when you came back ?

Mostly people are older, and more damaged by their addictions or mental illness.  More aged….

Women are the main heroes in your photos. Their personal stories, emotions they are getting through. You make them beautiful in whole that personal down. Which one made the most impressions to you?

Thank you! I love them all very much….I think India and Genevine have affected me the most deeply on a personal level.  I care about the others just as much, but those two are the most vulnerable.

I felt that with Doreen…

I was gone ten months, and I returned last week to Skid Row hoping desperately to find some of the people I’d photographed before I left California. I found Doreen, and, in my absence, she had found someone. These portraits and the images from the day I spent with Doreen and Gary speak for themselves… Being in love is a lottery win when it’s for real, and it can happen to anyone, anywhere. These pictures prove some of the trite nonsense that reads as nothing more than tired drivel to the jaded. To me, these images are intimate, intense, sexual but not pornographic, somewhat graphic without being obscene, and a personal history of a pretty straightforward afternoon spent in the arms of someone trusted. I’m beyond tired of idealized images of love and sexuality. I’m sick of airbrushed pictures of already unblemished people who represent nothing but a media display or advertising effort. And… it’s just unfair and unfortunate that most images of deep romance seem to star much younger people, leaving an entire population out of the game. I stopped by to say hi, and was invited in to take pictures of these moments. I declined initially, unsure. But after Doreen told me that I needed to step inside to see them, I did so….and I immediately got hooked on the sight.