When photographer Jae Hong returned to Los Angeles after a year in Japan, he was struck by how the number of homeless people had vastly multiplied.
It was immediately before the pandemic -- and Hong, like so many reporters in the AP, spent much of the next year chronicling the impact of coronavirus.
Earlier this year, he was able to get back to the project he’d yearned to pursue and started chronicling homeless Angelenos between other assignments. One night, he encountered two police officers standing over a dead body -- and his project, spotlighting the lives, and sometimes the deaths, of fentanyl addicts, began to take shape.
From 2020 to 2021, 2,000 homeless people died in Los Angeles County, nearly one third died from an overdose. That was three times the number of deaths for homeless people in New York, which has the largest number of people living on the streets in the United States.
Hong spent about six months documenting the humanitarian disaster. What he produced were gut-wrenching photos that gave a rare, intensely personal and brutally honest look into the tragedy unfolding on the streets of LA, an unconscionable scene often overlooked. One photo showed county workers covering up the body of a man who overdosed. Another was of an addict blowing fentanyl smoke into the mouth of another, believing he was helping ease his pain by getting him high. Hong said he would get headaches from being around the highly toxic smoke and would try to hold his breath or face away from the wind to not inhale any of it. The project was challenging: Hong had to be hyperaware of his surroundings at all times as he photographed people in dark alleys controlled by drug dealers -- and needed to find people willing to be photographed for as long as a few hours.
AP writer Brian Melley, using Hong's reporting and experiences, crafted a story of equally vivid imagery that portrayed the raw human suffering with sensitivity to complete the package. The package was widely used and kept readers’ attention. The engagement score on APNews was a perfect 100 and Facebook featured it on its news feed.
For focusing on a problem that is too often unseen and producing a raw, compelling visual package, this week’s first Best of the Week is awarded to Los Angeles photojournalist Jae C. Hong.