Diana Kim is a photographer who makes documentaries about the homeless, a passion she has pursued since her college days. The 34-year-old, a Korean-American photographer based in Oahu was separated from her father at the age of five. 22 years later, at the age of 27, she recognized her father on the street corner, a sick, weak, and homeless man. She began to document his homeless life and later rescued him.
In an interview with NBC news, Diana talks about her early life growing up on the Island of Maui, Hawaii . Her father was a photographer who once owned a studio on the Island. He was the one who taught her earliest skills in photography. She likes to believe he passed it on to her.
She didn’t have an ideal childhood. When her parents separated, her father slowly stopped being a part of her life. As things weren’t always easy for her mother, she had to spend a lot of time in other relatives’ homes and sometimes, she would wind up on the streets, sleeping in cars and under the open sky.
“I always thought of it as ‘roughing it,’ so it didn’t really bother me,” she recalled. “My survival instincts were always strong.”
“Some of the earliest memories I have of my father is of him giving me Ring Pop candies whenever my mother and I would visit him. I had an insatiable craving for sweets and he would go behind my mother’s back and sneak me gummy bears and Ring Pops.”
She was just documenting a homeless man, and he turned out to be her father
When she saw her father standing on the corner of the street, she recognized him immediately. She’d been only five when he’d left, but amazingly, she remembered him. A woman told her to leave the man, saying that he just stood there all day doing and saying nothing. She was furious with her for being so insensitive, and she decided to try to reach out to him.
“Photographing my own father actually began as a mechanism of protecting myself at first. I would raise my camera phone in front of me, almost as if that barrier would help keep me together. It hurt to see him like this. Some days I would literally just stand there and stare downwards because I couldn’t get myself to see him in the condition he was in. My own flesh and blood, but still such a stranger to me…,” Diana said.
She tried to get him help. Her father suffered from a severe case of schizophrenia that hadn’t been treated for many years. Communicating with him was difficult. Diana said that at times, she’d go out to the street at night to see him, and he wouldn’t be at the corner. She’d worry that something bad has happened, only to see him the next morning. Sometimes, he’d argue with nobody in particular, talking to nothing but the air in front of him.
“I can’t count the number of times I sat next to my father on the street, wondering how his future would look like,” Diana said. “I would sit there and pray quietly, just asking for a miracle and wishing that he would accept assistance. He would refuse to get treatment, take any medications, eat, bathe, or wear new clothes. I wasn’t sure if he would get better. There were times when I thought he would die there on that street.”
Her father’s ill health and slow recovery
Diana’s father had suffered terribly on the street. When she found him, he was in really bad shape and wasn’t about to allow anyone to help him. Diana wasn’t sure he’d survive the ordeal. She chose not to be deterred by all the hurt her father had caused her as a child. She put all the emotions aside and focused on his health and safety. He suffered a heart attack on a day when Diana wasn’t with him, but luckily, he was taken to the hospital by the police.
“My father had a heart attack while on the street, and someone cared enough to call the police. He was taken to a hospital and was then placed on medications. He eventually stabilized and his mental health conditions were addressed. Having a heart attack truly saved his life. It gave him the opportunity to get back on a treatment plan. And he has been on it ever since,” she said.
Diana is thankful for her love of photography. It let her reconnect with her father. According to her, “Photography is not just about creating images — it is my window to experiencing the world and sharing relationships with people and things that I am drawn to.”
Being behind the lens helped keep her raw emotions and vulnerability at bay, and she was able to document her father’s journey on the homeless side. She started out documenting others affected by homelessness, to share the pain they endure with the world. She never knew her own father would be one of her cases .
Diana says his health has been steadily improving, and he’s glad that he was able to come out of such a dark hole. While it may take some time to build a solid relationship, she’s happy that they’re on their way.
“I would like to take him out to watch a movie soon. I have never watched a movie with him! We are taking things day-by-day. Believe it or not, his schedule seems busier than mine sometimes. He likes to help his friends by giving them rides to dentists’ appointments, and is planning to visit his family in South Korea.”