What happened when a woman photographing the homeless found her father among them

When someone is meant to be in their life, the universe will find a way to put you back together. . . sometimes, in a heartbreaking way.

O’ahu based photographer Diana Kim, 30, first learned about the craft she loves so much from her father. “I grew up on the island of Maui and consider the islands to be home,” Kim told NBC News. “My father owned a photography studio at one time, so my earliest introduction to photography was through him.”

“Some of the earliest memories I have of my father is of him giving me Ring Pop candies whenever my mother and I would visit him,” Kim told NBC. “I had an insatiable craving for sweets and he would go behind my mother’s back and sneak me gummy bears and Ring Pops.”

But when Kim’s parents separated, she ended up bouncing between homes of relatives, friends, and even in parks and cars. Kim ended up losing contact with her father. “I always thought of it as ‘roughing it,’ so it didn’t really bother me,” she explained to NBC. “My survival instincts were always strong.”

Fast forward several years: When Kim was assigned a photo essay as a student in 2003, she decided to focus her work on the homeless community, a cause she was passionate about. The project ended up extending far beyond school, and in 2012, while shooting her project on the streets of Honolulu in 2012, Kim saw her father once again. . . but he was not the man she remembered. Years previously, Kim’s grandmother had informed her that his mental health was deteriorating; that she wasn’t sure where he was living, and that he refused to take his medication, eat, or even bathe. But Kim couldn’t possibly prepare herself for the moment when she realized that her own father didn’t recognize her.

“A woman came by and told me to ‘not bother,’ because he stood there all day,” Kim told NBC. “I wanted to scream at her for not caring, for being so cruel, and not considering that he was my father. But then I realized that anger wouldn’t do anything to change the circumstances we were in — so I turned towards her and said, ‘I have to try.’”

Thus began the slow process of reconnecting with her father through the thing that had connected them when Kim was a child: photography. Now her moving documentation is being shared all over social media.

“Photographing my own father actually began as a mechanism of protecting myself at first,” Kim told NBC. “I would raise my camera phone in front of me, almost as if that barrier would help keep me together. It hurt to see him like this. Some days I would literally just stand there and stare downwards because I couldn’t get myself to see him in the condition he was in. My own flesh and blood, but still such a stranger to me.”

Watching her father suffer so much was almost too much for Kim to bear, explaining that his untreated mental illness left him sometimes unresponsive or disoriented. But Kim persisted, showing up not only to capture her father on film, but to sit by his side and pray for his recovery. What saved him was something truly unexpected. When her father suffered a heart attack on the street and was hospitalized, he was placed on psychiatric medication, which helped him stabilize. 

 Today, with the help of a regular medication plan, Kim’s father is recovering.  

He has his good days and his bad days, but the amount he’s overcome is staggering.  He’s been applying to jobs and hopes to become a taxi driver, according to Kim’s blog, The Homeless Paradise. He’s also developing a renewed relationship with his daughter. Now Kim says she has learned to forgive him, for being absent for so much of her young life.

Since her story went viral, Kim has been inundated with love and support from strangers around the world. “I am so overwhelmed by the constant stream of positive and loving e-mails from all over the world,” she writes on her blog. “I wish I could respond to each one individually. It means so much to hear from those who have experienced, or are currently experiencing, what we went through the past couple of years.” But she is also realistic about the continuing journey she is on. It doesn’t end here.

“Although my story seems to immediately appear as one with a ‘happy ending,’ I do recognize that the road to recovery is ongoing,” she continues. “I keep my fingers crossed that my dad will stay in a ‘good place.’”

(Images via Twitter by Diana Kim)

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