Human Stories From the Streets
School of Photography alumnus GyuHo Park stands with his photographs at his recent exhibit, Dreamers. Photo by Alex Madison.
As of January 2017, there were 7,499 homeless people living on the streets of San Francisco, according to the city. Anyone who travels along South Van Ness Avenue, or through the Mission and Tenderloin districts, walks past the homeless. Most people stroll along looking at their cell phones, continuing a conversation with a friend, or just simply not noticing the homeless at all.
This is not the experience GyuHo Park expresses in his photography exhibit, Dreamers. Instead, his photographs evoke a different kind of experience. One that is up close and personal. One that brings humanity to the homeless population. One that tells their story.
“People judge homeless people,” said Park, a 2016 alumnus of the School of Photography at Academy of Art University. “People say they choose to be homeless. Yes, some part of that is true, but for the most part something happened that made them give up their life.”
The striking images of Dreamers were displayed on the walls of the 625 Sutter Gallery through the end of December. The images capture the everyday lives of the men and women populating the alleyways, underpasses and parks of the city. Some photographs show a smiling face, others of intoxication, pain, sadness or simply survival.
Originally from South Korea, and fairly new to the United States, Park found his American experience to be very different than he expected. Like many foreigners, America can seem like the land of opportunity, the place where dreams come true.
But as Park came to find out, that is not always the case.
“This country is the strongest, richest country in the world. Why are there so many homeless people? You have so much money. If you can try, you can fix it,” the 29-year-old said.
Park wanted to use his visual talent to show people and government agencies the lives of those who have found themselves living on the streets.
“I want to show people in America and American politicians there are so many homeless people in your city,” he said. “I want to show their lifestyle and how they live on the streets.”
For more than two years, Park took photos of the homeless community throughout the city; a project that started in his portfolio one class. The years he spent capturing moments on the streets were some of the most interesting of Park’s time since coming to the States. He admitted to feeling a bit fearful of approaching the homeless at first, but soon he saw them for who they really were: Nice people.
“These are totally different than anything I’ve ever seen. It makes me feel uncomfortable in a good way. You walk the streets and pass the homeless people all the time. It’s easy to not pay attention to them. These pictures force you to look at this issue.” - Cat Fennell, School of Photography lab technician
“They are like friends to me now,” he said.
Walking around the gallery prior to the start of the opening reception on Dec. 7, Park shared stories behind some of the faces in the photographs. He spoke about veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a woman whose husband and children abandoned her, and people suffering mental illness and drug addiction, which Park said is a significant factor contributing to the homeless crisis.
One picture depicted a shirtless man on the side of a busy street playing the guitar, while a hand flashed the peace sign out of the window of a passing car. Park’s former photography instructor, Cadrian Aubrae, said the photo expressed the numbness San Franciscans often have toward the homeless.
“That image perfectly portrays how oblivious and desensitized we’ve become here about the homeless situation,” she said.
She continued talking about the talent Park has for incorporating a visceral human element in his work.
“He has an incredible ability to show the humanity in his subjects’ eyes,” she said.
This quality within the Dreamers photographs was noticed by attendees of his exhibit on opening night. People walked the perimeter of the gallery, looking into the faces of the homeless. The gallery was quiet, as it seemed people were taking in the emotion of the images.
GyuHo Park with one of his photographs at his recent exhibit, Dreamers. Photo by Alex Madison.
“These are totally different than anything I’ve ever seen,” she said. “It makes me feel uncomfortable in a good way. You walk the streets and pass the homeless people all the time. It’s easy to not pay attention to them. These pictures force you to look at this issue.”
This is Park’s intent. To give perspective to the homeless crisis plaguing the city and to create a genuine sense of understanding.
The strength of Park’s work is not simply rooted in the subjects he chooses to shoot, but in his technical talents as a photographer as well, according to another one of Park’s former instructors, David Wasserman. His ability to frame subjects in an interesting way and work with color and light which mimics that of a studio photographer, not a street photographer, shared Wasserman.
“There is a deliberateness of design to his work that is usually associated with people in the studio,” Wasserman said. “One of his super strengths is intuitively knowing where to place the primary subject in the frame.”
Wasserman, without a doubt, highly respects Park’s work. “He is one of the best students to come through the program in the last half decade,” he said.
Park currently lives in New York City, where he continues to take photos of the homeless. He also shoots for the fashion industry, including for brands like The Brooklyn Circus, although his ultimate goal is to be a documentary photographer.
When asked what the public can do to mitigate the homeless crisis problem, Park said to opt for giving food directly to those living on the streets instead of money. Putting political policies aside, he also shared that one of the most impactful ways to help is to donate to local shelters.
“The most important thing is our interest,” he said.