On most days, a photographer who goes by “Suitcase Joe” spends his spare time — lunch break, before or after work, weekends — documenting the people and culture of Skid Row. Somewhere between photojournalist and artist (with certain appetites of an ethnographer), he captures the casual drama of an extreme environment: quotidian rhythms, granular textures, fleeting emotions. Intimate and raw, his photos often bypass voyeurism in favor of presence, proximity and empathy. It's the kind of image-making you imagine springing from intuitive movement, or patient immersion.
“I feel like they become dehumanized, homeless people and street people. People overlook them — they just stop looking at them,” Joe says, adding that he hopes those scrolling through his Instagram account, so far the primary outlet for his work, will “care enough to come down there too and help in different ways, or be more aware of people with those kinds of issues in their own neighborhoods, as opposed to just turning a blind eye to them.”
Attuned to the impact of simple gestures for people so routinely denied them, he makes a point of shaking people's hands, or offering a hug — “regardless of how long they've been on the street or how dirty they might be,” he says. “I really like the people down there. I find something really touching about [our interactions] and I learn a lot. And it kind of moves me.”
A writer with no formal photography training, Joe tends to prioritize content over form, posting images because he thinks they need to be seen. “The way I think about it long-term is somebody might look back on these photos 100 years from now and it's a piece of history. … I like to post a lot and not hold back, so it's out there.”
It started with an idea, nearly a decade ago, of how he thought Skid Row ought to be documented — in gritty, timeless black-and-white — but took a few years of observing before he decided to pick up a camera. (He keeps his biographical details, as well as what he shoots with, to himself.) Since then, his penchant for simple compositions, both portrait and candid, has begun to articulate a unique style, with glimpses of formidable artistry.
Snapshots of daily life — cooking on a portable grill, washing clothes at a fire hydrant, music, pets, fashion, scrambled signifiers of domesticity, affection, a sign on a tent that says “Together is our favorite place to be” — all in the same space as the wrenching vulnerability, shocking violence and deep despair you might expect, force viewers to see Skid Row simultaneously as both war zone and home.
People ravaged by drugs and neglect, lifetimes on the street, in Joe's images become part of a narrative of survival. He documents their transformation, often for the worse, or just their continued presence against all odds.
Asked if he feels conflicted about photographing people with questionable agency, he admits he can't always ask permission to shoot, in cases where mental illness precludes that conversation, but insists he approaches everyone with respect.
A lifetime obsession with “old hobo culture” informs both his moniker and his aesthetic sensibilities, and a general fascination with underworlds and outsiders is evident. He draws on a broader sense of history and folklore, reading about Skid Row in Bukowski, Bunker, Chandler — “it makes me feel connected to the whole neighborhood.”
Some days, he just reports on the weather, reminding that “a bottle of cold water could go a long way right now.”
“I feel like Skid Row kind of gives me little gifts. I'll walk around the corner sometimes and see something that strikes me,” he says. “But I also believe that some days I have to not go in there with my camera, and go and give out water, or food, or buy people socks and stuff. I feel like it's kind of a give-and-take relationship. I always try to take care of people — if I take photos of them, I give them money or other things. But other times I feel it's important to go down there, hang out and just talk to people. … It's a community down there.”
He now gets daily inquiries, including requests for tours from other photographers who think Skid Row is a destination (he declines), and from family members asking him to keep an eye out for their loved ones (he tries).
“People don't all want their picture taken and you have to do it respectfully, feel it out,” Joe says. “I see a few (photographers) but they come and go quickly. Or they stick to the outskirts. Not that many people go what I call 'deep' into Skid Row. … Each situation is different. A lot of people there have mental health issues and it's not just because you have a camera. … It's because they've been pushed into a very small area and they're not always all that self-aware.”
He watches the borders ebb and flow, up to Main and back down to Los Angeles Street. Over the last six months to a year, he's watched the opioid epidemic playing out.
“I see like 10 times more people shooting up on the street, people are OD-ing. I'm seeing a lot more young people. It just seems to be overlooked. I always think of Skid Row as an eyesore to people in L.A. They like to look all around it but they've just pushed it to this little community. Like 12,000 homeless people in 4 square miles? That's absurd.”
By now he knows the grid — the blocks run by gangs, segregated by race; the streets where people go for heroin, meth, crack, and those “further back where more prostitution goes on.” He's acquainted, from a cautious distance, with the underground economy, social ecosystem, the justice of the streets — “There's a lot more going on down there than the surface of what it looks like.” And he knows better than to go at night.
Through it all, he's perpetually gutted by how badly the crisis is mishandled.
“Three public toilets you pay 50 cents to go into? Where do these people go to the bathroom? Can we at least set up a building so people can go to the bathroom, shower indoors? They don't have anywhere to use a restroom or privacy,” he said, acknowledging the handful of mobile showers but insisting there should be more.
“I've heard people say nobody starves in Skid Row. And there are lots of missions down there feeding people. What I don't think there is enough of are shelters for women, who I think have it the worst in Skid Row,” he says, pointing to the rampant exploitation of women with mental health or substance abuse issues, as well as the obvious lack of security.
He says what we're all thinking.
“Something that always bothers me in this town is there's all these celebrities who've made tons of money and they all like to take on activist causes … but there's this thing in our backyard that needs so much attention. And I don't see anybody down there doing anything really profound, or putting a lot of money, or using their voice as somebody famous to come down there and say, 'Hey, this is where we should put some attention.' Why is that not happening in this city, of all places?”
For every photo he takes, he knows there are hundreds he can't get. But Skid Row doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon, and neither is he.
“I would like to document Skid Row with photos, better than anyone ever has. And yeah, just keep doing it, compiling it,” Joe says. “I just think I can get in there better than anybody has.”