As a child, Diana Kim's first encounters with photography — which later became her passion — were through her father who owned a photography studio.
But after her parents separated, Kim had a tumultuous childhood as she was shuffled between the homes of relatives and friends, sometimes even living in parks or cars.
Now at 30, Kim is a photographer based in O'ahu, Hawaii. One of her longest projects, documenting her community's homeless population, turned out to be a profound experience that changed her life.
During the near-decade photographing the homeless around her, the last person Diana Kim expected to stumble upon among them was her own flesh and blood. But that's exactly what happened during one of her photography shoots on the streets of Honolulu.
After years of lost contact, Kim found her father, homeless, disheveled and painfully thin, in the throes of a deteriorating mental condition — his schizophrenia had worsened.
It was a devastating moment.
When Kim finally summoned up the courage to approach him, he did not respond. "I stood there trying to get him to look at me and acknowledge me," she said, when a woman went up to her and told her not to bother, because he was there all the time.
"Part of me wanted to scream at the woman, and the world, for being so callous. Yell that he was my father, and that she was heartless not to care. But none of that would change the circumstances. So instead of screaming, I faced her and said, 'I have to try.'"
"There were nights when I wouldn't find him," she recalled to NBC News. "And other days when I least expected it, and he would be standing on the corner of a street. He suffered from severe schizophrenia, and left untreated, he was not always responsive."
"I can't count the number of times I sat next to my father on the street, wondering how his future would look like. I would sit there and pray quietly, just asking for a miracle and wishing that he would accept assistance. He would refuse to get treatment, take any medications, eat, bathe, or wear new clothes. I wasn't sure if he would get better. There were times when I thought he would die there on that street."
Over the next year and a half, Kim tried to rehabilitate her father as they reconnected, bit by bit.
One day, Kim's father had a heart attack on the street. Thankfully, someone called the police and he was taken to the hospital.
The heart attack proved to have a silver lining — after he was stabilized, the doctors addressed his mental health condition. "Having the heart attack truly saved his life," she told NBC News. "It gave him the opportunity to get back on a treatment plan. And he has been on it ever since."
Kim documents her father's road to rehabilitation on her personal blog, where she also writes vividly about the characters that she encounters on the streets and their struggles with being homeless.
"Photography is not just about creating images," she explained to NextShark. "It is my window to experiencing the world and sharing relationships with people and things that I am drawn to... My goal, long before my father ever became homeless, was to humanize those who lived on the streets. They each have a story, and I hope that by sharing my own story, it helps to give new perspective."
Today, Kim's father is doing exceptionally well. He keeps a busy schedule, has jumped on the job hunt and has plans to visit his family in South Korea.
And Kim is actively trying to cultivate a relationship with her father that she never got to have as a child. When she turned 30, her father called to ask for help with a job application. Kim wrote in her blog post that though he didn't remember her birthday, she felt enormously grateful that she had heard from him regardless.
If this experience with her father has taught Kim anything, it's that the pain and struggles in life do not have to define or confine us.
"As long as we are alive and breathing, we have the opportunity to change the course of our lives in a positive way," she told A Plus in an email. "My father is an example of someone who, with the proper medical assistance and treatment, was able to get his second chance and is now choosing to live his life more fully and meaningfully."
"I'm grateful to share the moments we have, right here and right now," she continued. "I think that's the beauty in the struggle — we appreciate each other more because of what we went through together. So the journey continues and who knows what we will be able to look back on in another 30 years!"
Cover image via Diana Kim