Beautiful Photos of Homeless People

Maybe it’s all of the overproduced images of pop tarts and their spastic tongues that we’re relentlessly bombarded with, but these photos of diseased, dislocated and indigent street urchins are more magnetic than anything Lady Beyoncyrus could ever hope to manufacture.

They’re the work of photographer John Hwang, a one-man homelessness awareness organization who shoots portraits of Los Angeles’ dispossessed the way no one else cares enough to. Which is curious, given what a fertile plain of compelling characters LA’s streets are. All you have to do to is talk to one to find out.

Eventually, Hwang did. Since March, he’s ventured increasingly into the bastard recesses of Los Angeles, where an almost Morlock-like populace emerges to replace the day walkers after business hours. When the sun drops throughout the one square mile of downtown known as Skid Row, they set about erecting tents and foraging for recyclables, but — as evinced in Hwang’s images — also reading, sweeping up and peddling sidewalk barbecue.


The photos stand on their own as arresting apertures on the city’s Third World. But, when combined with the stories of these marginalized men and women who represent every f-stop on the dial of human experience, Hwang’s images move others to action.

Inspired by Hwang’s work, Facebook friends and followers have donated clothing, sprung for lunch tabs and even organized shelter for his photo subjects. He himself has done the same, despite crushing personal student loan debt and a day job as an occupational therapist that demands six days of every week.

But Hwang’s not a daydreaming altruist. Armed with snacks and bottles of water, he once wandered Skid Row to get to know more of its beggared dwellers and deliver them food and fluids. But when one of them thoughtlessly reached for a bottle without so much as looking him in the eye, Hwang yanked it back.

“There’s this mentality among people who work the shelters in Skid Row that it’s like you’re feeding zoo animals,” Hwang says. “Some of the homeless people have gotten so used to it that, when they see you, they just take stuff. I didn’t want it to be like that.”

Distributing basic necessities is obviously a valuable service, but Hwang’s not there to serve; he’s there to make connections. Beyond that, he doesn’t actually know entirely why he’s doing this. “A few years ago, I went through a mild depression,” he says. “It was over nothing. Life was great. But I felt like something was missing.”

That feeling ultimately compelled him to seek more spiritual pursuits. “It made me want to be in the most hopeless, dejected place I could think of,” he says.

In Los Angeles, that place is Skid Row, where Hwang began engaging the natives just because. “The conversations are as real as it gets,” he says. “What’s life about? What motivates them to keep going every day? It was really enlightening to me. It brought me new perspectives on life.”

Recognizing an inevitable clash between the unstoppable force of gentrification and the immovable object that is eight decades of demoralizing poverty in Downtown LA, Hwang decided to document the humanity of those who’ve largely been consigned by society to subhumanity.


Perhaps most remarkable about Hwang’s work is that he does it without calculation or agenda. Absent an overarching plan or even a full understanding of the impact of his work, he doesn’t even display it beyond his own Facebook account.

But lives are being affected anyway.

A couple of months ago, two Facebook friends of Hwang’s saw his photo of a man named Quinn. A few nights later they returned to the area where John photographed him and befriended Quinn themselves, arranging for his transportation and admission to a shelter down in Compton.

Given the butterfly effect of forward payment, Quinn may one day get a job, secure a permanent place to live, meet a nice girl, maybe have a couple of kids. That’s six lives right there. Extrapolate that out a generation or two, you’re talking about eight, maybe 16 more lives and the numbers only grow exponentially from there. All because a guy took a picture.

“It’s pretty cool when you put it that way,” Hwang says.


Most of us have come to think of all homeless people as one homeless person, the same tasteless, colorless, rarely odorless street zombie who’s devoid of any meaningful history or measurable value. But Hwang’s photos are like Life magazine spreads on LA’s indigent population, coaxing from his subjects compelling backstories and buoyant spirits that make the down-and-out endearing and actionable.

It’s evidenced by the varying feedback Hwang receives from different Facebook followers depending on the person featured in his photos. Every beholder takes his or her own particular level of interest in each subject pictured — some are moved by Walter’s story, others by Angel’s — underscoring the importance of what Hwang is doing to make people care, and the likelihood of that to inspire action.

Of course, Hwang couldn’t get the kind of access he does to capture the photos he shoots were it not for the reverence he extends his models. His gentle nature, guileless curiosity and almost unbelievable sincerity are disarming to even his most guarded subjects, who grant him a confidence unavailable to others.

“When I get to know people, I’m very conscious of how I present myself,” he says. “If they’re sitting on the sidewalk, I’ll sit there with them, as if I’m a guest in their home; it just happens to be a home filled with shit and urine.”

See more of John’s photos on Facebook | Join his Facebook group “Being Kind is Cool”

“I met a young homeless man today. He was telling me about how he recently ate some really delicious bread, and he kept the plastic wrapping so he can savor the smell.” (Photo: John Hwang)

“Today I met Justin, 26, and his girlfriend Anna, 19. Justin struggles with heroin and alcohol addiction. Anna is often mistaken for a prostitute, but refuses to sell her body. I bought them dinner; Justin could only eat mashed potatoes because he bit his tongue when he was having seizures from drug-related withdrawals. Anna only wanted a milkshake.
We sat on the sidewalk together and I listened to them share stories of how they met, what they mean to each other and their struggles on the street. I found out that both of Justin’s parents died when he was young and he has no siblings, while Anna ran away from home because of an abusive step father. Then I realized they are the only family they have.” (Photo: John Hwang)

“Tonight in downtown Fullerton I met Will. A homeless man from Savannah, Georgia. We chatted about many things from politics, the state of the economy, sports. It turns out he was an ordained minister. He sang me an inspiring song, gave me advice on life, and also held my hand and prayed for me. He has a sweet soul.” (Photo: John Hwang)

“When Angel asked me for change in Little Tokyo, I asked her why she needed the money. She said that she wasn’t a druggie; she just needed money for medication. When I offered to go with her to the pharmacy she started screaming, ‘Why does no one fucking believe me?! I told you I am not a druggie!’ And then she continued, saying she hates everybody and wants to kill herself.
Part of me just wanted to walk away, but I felt the need to stay by her. I had never seen such angry tears and such a look of hopelessness in a person in my life. I stood next to her on the busy street corner as she cried and screamed, ‘I want to fucking die!’ for a good 10 minutes. When she finally calmed down, I looked at her and said, ‘You see, I am still here.’ Then I bought her something to eat and we took a walk.
She begin to open up and told me that she was originally from Indiana. The grandmother who raised her died when she was a teenager and she’s been alone and independent ever since. She married at 15 and had three kids with an abusive husband who once beat her so badly he put her in a coma. The brain damage resulted in paralysis in her arms and legs. Just recently, her husband dumped her downtown and left her for another woman.
Now she doesn’t know where her kids are and doesn’t know anyone out here. She’s been sleeping in a bush in Little Tokyo for the past month, begging for change to survive. She said she can’t collect recyclables because of her physical condition and can’t go to a shelter because she doesn’t have a California ID card. So against my better judgement I gave her some money and some food to take with her. I walked her to the Metro Gold Line station and sent her off to get her medication. She gave me a hug and a small smile, and for the first time that night, I saw a small sparkle in those hopeless eyes.” (Photo: John Hwang)

“This is Melody. She hears voices. She’s been homeless for the past six months and told me that one of the dangers at night for her is that she can be raped, as she has already been assaulted before. During the day she walks around downtown begging for change or food. She is often shunned or ignored by people or chased away by security guards for being a ‘pest.’ When I saw her begging in the street, I went to the market and bought her some fresh fruit; apples and peaches. It turns out she has no teeth, so she couldn’t eat them. So we walked around Little Tokyo and I treated her to whatever she wanted to eat. Sadly she waited outside of the market or restaurants because she was afraid of the security guards.
As I came out of the restaurant with her dinner, from a distance I saw her sitting on the bench waiting for me while people walked by staring at her. I felt really moved where I wanted to cry. She ate very quickly as she was very hungry. Then we sat together on the bench and she shared with me stories of her life, her family, as well as her struggles with her psychiatric condition. I asked ‘Melody, do you still hear voices now?’ and she responded, ‘I can hear yours…’ and we both smiled.” (Photo: John Hwang)

For Shaquan, music is his passion. He gave up everything to follow his dream of becoming a hip hop artist. After some bad circumstances and poor decisions, he became homeless. We sat together on the sidewalk and he told me that he works menial jobs around the clubs to stay close to the music scene. He makes just enough money to eat and maybe a few nights to sleep at a motel, but most of the time he sleeps on the beach.
He told me he will never give up on his dream and that one day he sees himself performing on stage. Then I suggested I do some head shots for his album cover. We did a little impromptu photo shoot on the street, and I could see his face brighten up. So keep a look out for Shaquan, or his stage name State2State.

“‘Take a shower! You stink man!’ the gang of kids would yell, sometimes throwing rocks at him as they sped by on their skateboards. Worse was when he woke up to someone urinating on him. The burly man would say to him “where you sleep that’s my shit hole.” Quinn deals with humiliation, along with loneliness, hunger, and despair. Yet he strives each day with a smile. A new day brings some glimmer of hope.
He holds onto his integrity and self-respect by refusing to beg or panhandle. When the general public has gone home, he roams the dark empty streets looking for recyclables. He prefers not to be seen. To be invisible. Out of sight. In respect for others and perhaps for himself. During the day, he never crosses north of 3rd St. As if there is an invisible wall there. Because north of 3rd St is where the well-to-do live. Staying within the confines of Skid Row because that’s where he won’t be looked down on.” (Photo: John Hwang)

“‘Nobody wants me.’ That’s what Danny told me. His voice quivered, he was barely intelligible. He had just gotten out of county jail a few weeks before. With no family support and unable to cope on his own, he was dumped in Skid Row. Danny is one among many living on the streets who suffers from severe mental illness. (Photo: John Hwang)

“Tonight, I made a spur of the moment decision to go to the Dodgers game. It’s the playoffs after all. I know the game is sold out, but what the heck. So I decide to walk over to the stadium from Little Tokyo, a six-mile walk there and back. As I walk down Olvera Street, I see this old homeless man, named ‘Calvin.’ He is shuffling along with his shopping cart, when this young man sitting at a restaurant calls out to him, ‘Hey, O.G.! Are you hungry? I will buy you whatever you want to eat!’ I felt so touched by his compassion that I turned around and I went up to the young man — his name is ‘Lovel’ — and I took out $5 from my wallet and said to him, ‘My friend, take this money so I can contribute to paying for this man’s meal as well.’
He looked shocked and said to me, ‘Hey man! I didn’t see you. Where did you come from?’ I responded, ‘I was just walking by and overheard what you said and I just felt compelled in my heart to give you this money.’ So the three of us sat together and ate. Calvin is so happy to be eating a warm meal that he keeps thanking us and thanking God, while Lovel still has a shocked look on his face and keeps saying to me, ‘I can’t believe you did that man!’
Afterwards, Lovel had me walk with him to the gas station. He went to the ATM to get some money and handed me $12. He said to me, ‘You gave me $5 to bless this man, and I am going to give you back $12 to show you that when you give to others you get more in return.’ As we parted ways, he said to me, ‘If I never see you again, I might think you are some kind of angel or something’ and I said to him, ‘No, Lovel, I’m certainly no angel, but i am your brother.’ And we give each other a warm embrace.
So I did end up going to the Dodgers game. I found a desperate ticket scalper who initially tried to sell me a ticket for $100 (face value was $70), but I talked him down to $40. Too bad the Dodgers lost, but it was an amazing night nonetheless.” (Photo: John Hwang)