Photographer and law student Diana Kim’s childhood wasn’t easy. After her father left the family, she spent her early years moving from place to place, staying with friends and relatives, and even in cars and in parks.
Eventually, Kim made a good, stable life for herself, and made a home for herself in Honolulu, Hawaii, with her husband and two sons. The only thing she had left of her absent father was a love of photography — or so she thought.
A photo of Kim and her dad when Kim was a small child.
Because of her childhood hardships, Kim pursued a career in law and advocacy, particularly for the homeless. She works to raise awareness of the city’s homeless issue through photographing and interviewing its homeless population in a project called The Homeless Paradise. It started back in 2003, in Kim’s first year of college
She came across this emaciated man, dressed in rags and obviously suffering from a severe mental illness. She recognized him immediately.
“I gravitated towards the homeless because in some ways I identified with their struggle,” she explains. “I knew what it meant to be discarded, to be neglected, and to not have the stability and economic freedom I wanted. Overall, I understood their struggle because I struggled in the same way.”
But she soon made a heartbreaking discovery.
He was her father.
Apparently, Kim’s father had been standing at a street corner for days, staring numbly ahead or arguing with nothing. Worst of all, he didn’t even recognize his own daughter. When Kim attempted to communicate with him, a passerby, not knowing their connection, said, “Don’t bother. He has been standing there for days.” Kim simply responded, “I have to try.”
For the next two years, Kim went back to that corner. All of her attempts to reach her father through the fog of his severe schizophrenia failed.
He refused to eat, wear the new clothes she brought, or seek help. Kim didn’t know what to do, but despite his absence in her childhood, she was determined not to give up on him.
In October of 2014, Kim’s father was found lying face down on the street. Someone called an ambulance, and he was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. While that sounds like a turn for the worse, experiencing care in the hospital was a turning point for him. Kim came to visit, and the two had their first conversation in years. “I walked away feeling lighter that day,” Kim says.
Kim’s father in the hospital, where he finally agreed to seek treatment for his illness.
Slowly, Kim’s father began to improve. His schizophrenia caused him to have good and bad days, but he learned how to manage it with therapy and medication. He began to rebuild his relationship with his daughter. When she finally saw him after he’d been in treatment, looking healthy and strong, Kim wrote on her blog, “I feel like I just met my father for the first time today.”
They went to a Buddhist temple and for coffee, having the first of many long talks.
Today, Kim’s father continues to improve, and he and Kim are working to strengthen their relationship. He’s also looking for a job, reconnecting with friends, and planning on visiting his family in South Korea.
As for Kim, this incredible experience made her passionate about raising awareness about homelessness and mental illness in her community.
“Every day is a gift,” she says. “Some days are more challenging than others, but seeing my father in the flesh is a constant reminder of the strength of the human spirit and how precious life is. So long as we are alive in this world, every day is an opportunity to take hold of that ‘second chance.’ There is no failure unless you give up, and he never gave up. And I haven’t given up on him.”