For three months, Associated Press photographer Jae Hong traveled America’s West Coast to chronicle the region’s exploding homeless crisis and do what many try to avoid: look into the eyes of the people living on the streets, in tents or in their vehicles and get to know them.
His series of intimate portraits focused on the subjects’ eyes and were combined with short text stories to reveal their humanity, whether it was an aging, down-on-his-luck street performer on Los Angeles’ Skid Row or a 9-year-old boy who lives with his family in a rented RV blocks from Google’s headquarters.
The unique portraits were one part of a larger package of images that Hong and his colleagues across the West – Ted Warren, Marcio Sanchez, Chris Carlson and Greg Bull – produced for a project looking at the roots of the homeless crisis in the region and identifying potential solutions.
For their work documenting the lives of the homeless, the team wins this week’s Beat of the Week prize.
In recent years, the rise in the number of homeless has led officials in several municipalities to declare public emergencies as they grapple with how to respond to a crisis that’s been fed by soaring housing costs, rock-bottom vacancy rates and a roaring economy.
One challenge emerged immediately in the planning for the project: How do you tell this story visually beyond the kinds of images of homeless that we’ve all seen? Conversation centered on making portraits of the homeless, mainly because most people tend to walk quickly past them without making eye contact.
Hong, who has spent years photographing the lives of the homeless living on LA’s Skid Row, got the assignment. Working with West photo editor Stephanie Mullen, Hong developed the idea further, deciding to use a special lens that allows the photographer to focus on a section of an image and have the rest remain out of focus.
They would focus on the subjects’ eyes, and for the next three months, Hong hit the streets in Washington state, Oregon and California to find subjects. Many told him their stories. Some were high on drugs or mentally ill. Some cursed at him inches from his face. Hong also recorded his interviews with his subjects, written into a series of vignettes by Los Angeles reporter Brian Melley.
He wrote in a first-person account of his travels:
“I saw so much of people in their rawest moments that I couldn’t bring myself to photograph some of it … There’s always an internal struggle. As a photographer, I want to capture the moment because my job is to tell the story. As a human, the agony can be too hard to watch. Some don’t know they need help – or even that help exists.”
Meanwhile, Hong and his colleagues set out to chronicle the breadth of the crisis in the gleaming West Coast cities that have come to be known for their progressive lifestyles and innovation. Their images delved deeply into the lives of the homeless, revealing that some are working but not making enough to afford to pay rent.
– In Anaheim, California, Chris Carlson captured images of the city of tents and tarps clustered beneath the giant "A" outside Angels Stadium.
– In San Jose, California, Marcio Sanchez brought us the story of a San Jose State University lecturer who lives in her car with her husband and two dogs because they can’t afford the rent in Silicon Valley.
– In Seattle, within view of the iconic Space Needle, Ted Warren captured an image of a man sitting at a bus stop bench, his possessions packed into a wheelchair.
– And on San Diego’s Ocean Beach, next to the pier, Greg Bull photographed a homeless person asleep on the sand.
Their success was evident in the comments on social media: Many readers thanked the photographers for portraying the homeless not as the anonymous byproducts of a society that has pushed them to the margins, but as real people feeling real anguish.
The project began with Geoff Mulvihill of the State Government Team. He obtained exclusive facts and figures that made the on-the-ground reporting possible. He teamed up with Gillian Flaccus in Portland for the first day’s story, and later wrote one on the lessons the West Coast could learn from East Coast cities in dealing with homelessness. Janie Har in San Francisco wrote a piece exploring the working poor in Silicon Valley.
Top Stories editor Jerry Schwartz worked his usual wizardry with the copy; Seattle-based video journalist Manuel Valdes spent months trying to find subjects who would be willing to go on camera; New York City photographer Seth Wenig helped with a story anchored there; and West region editor Katie Oyan, working with Alina Hartounian, prepared a detailed and compelling social media plan that drove engagement throughout the week. New York digital display guru Nat Castañeda followed up with a compelling behind-the-story video.
Even after several pieces had moved, engagement with the West Coast homeless package was exceeding three minutes – an astounding number. Other metrics illustrated the high level of interest: The day the mainbar moved, it was the most read story on the website of the San Francisco Chronicle. The Seattle Times ran the entire series on its website. Both newspapers have had extensive coverage of the homeless problem in their readership areas, but no media outlet had reported the scope of the crisis as the AP had.
“I haven’t seen the West Coast’s current crisis better illustrated and explained than in this piece.” – Scott Greenstone, Seattle Times reporter on homelessness
It was the Seattle Times’ dedicated homelessness reporter who wrote on Twitter: “I haven’t seen the West Coast’s current crisis better illustrated and explained than in this piece.” Fittingly, the first reference in his compliment was for the images by the AP’s photo team.
For photos that showed the humanity of the homeless, Hong, Warren, Sanchez, Carlson and Bull win this week’s $500 Beat of the Week prize.