Kim Watson: TRESPASS
September 17 through October 11, 2022
By VICTOR SLEDGE, October 2022
Kim Watson is a photographer, writer, musician, filmmaker and more. As a multi-hyphenate artist, he’s pursued many creative ventures and told many stories through his repertoire of talents. But it was one day, while he was walking the streets of New York, that brought Watson to his current artistic pursuits.
As he chased the New York pavement like everyone else, he was stopped in his tracks when he recognized his college roommate, who had his back turned to Watson. This roommate had actually been Watson’s old friend since cub scouts. Watson was even familiar with his roommate’s mother.
“Something in me just knew who he was,” says Watson. “There was nothing identifiable facing me but his spirit just resonated.”
While, normally, this would appear to be a joyous reunion, when Watson stumbled upon his old roommate and friend, he noticed he was reaching into a trash can. Watson’s friend, who he had once shared a living space with, was experiencing homelessness.
“I was frozen,” Watson admitted. “It struck so close to home and that experience stayed with me.”
This personal connection Watson now had with the issue of housing insecurity eventually propelled him to his newest multimedia project, TRESPASS, which recently exhibited at The BAG (Bestor Architecture Gallery) in Los Angeles. The exhibition takes you down the alleyways of L.A., walks with you as you duck under a roadbridge and lays you down on the cracked sidewalk—all to welcome you into the living spaces and lives of thousands of unhoused people living in Los Angeles, where Watson now lives.
As an artist who could’ve told this story through multiple mediums, which he plans to do in the future with a book and documentary, Watson knew the gravitas photography could bring to these peoples’ stories.
“There’s something visceral, there’s something tactile that photography captures like no other medium,” Watson says.
More specifically, TRESPASS is shot in black and white. It was a creative decision Watson made that cuts out distractions. It visually silences the noise of each photo, and cuts to the reality of people experiencing housing insecurity and how they’ve been documented. The black and white photos leave no room for speculation, and they don’t let you avert your gaze to ignore the person in the photo. To push this further, Watson accompanies text with each image, telling the stories the people depicted have entrusted to him.
In this series, you’re met with the humanity of a group that for too long has been denied recognition, and you don’t get to skirt them or their circumstances. You’re up close and personal with them.
“You can really dig into a person in black and white,” Watson explains about this creative decision. “When I look at the deeply creviced lines on someone’s face or the scabs from a fall: in black and white, it’s bare, it’s naked, and I find it compelling and revealing.”
This is the raw, humanizing work Watson presents in TRESPASS. While so much of the documentation surrounding housing insecurity focuses on the circumstances, the hardship or the sometimes mythic narratives surrounding unhoused individuals, Watson focuses on the people. And that isn’t by chance.
“One of the elements I’ve tried to convey in my work is a real personal, intimate feeling between me and whoever I work with,” Watson says.
The relationships he’s built with the unhoused in LA aren’t merely a byproduct of his work. His work is more so a byproduct of those relationships. For years prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, he had been volunteering on his local streets multiple days every week, providing food and necessities, and helping his friends on the street find resources. For the exhibition, he also had advocate and non-profit organizations Covenant House, 211 LA, 2nd Call and LA Community Health Project on hand to discuss the human and community impact of the housing crisis.
As opposed to seeing homeless people – a term that prioritizes a person’s circumstances over their humanity – in Watson’s work, we are seeing friends, family, and communities living life without a secure home. And even without a home, TRESPASS shows the world that these people still have worthy stories, character, and a beating heart that all deserve to be seen like that of anyone else.
“This is the first time in a long time some of these people have been recognized outside of their unhoused community,” he says.
And with that in mind, Watson ensures that their experience with him is one that prioritizes their dignity and humanity. In TRESPASS, he’s found a way to talk about their housing insecurity without making it their identity. Instead, he focuses on what bonds people together in and outside our unhoused communities and how we can and must offer help.
He can unearth these bonds because Watson isn’t just casually documenting the lives of the people he encounters. These have become his friends. He spends time interacting with them, getting to know their background outside of their current situation. Some of the people Watson photographs have even met his wife and son. Everyone depicted in the photography of TRESPASS has been paid and he continuers to take food and necessities to the streets of Los Angeles.
The work Watson has done, both spending his free time helping people who are unhoused around LA and building his own genuine relationships with them, nurtures the earnest approach Watson takes to this photography series.
“Everything I do is about relationships,” Watsons says.
One of the most refreshing elements of Watson’s work is that you can feel these relationships. You can feel Watson’s intentional and thoughtful representation of this community, and it reveals something tangible that connects that community to people who may have never experienced housing insecurity before. It restructures the narrative and re-humanizes situations that, as Watson knows all too well, could happen to anyone.
“If we can understand that there’s a shared humanity there,” he says, “we would see that this could be anyone of us if circumstances were different.”
Even further, Watson’s work shows that not only can housing insecurity happen to anyone, the reasons it can happen are just as unpredictable. Much of the documentation around housing insecurity implies a level of irresponsibility or negligence on behalf of unhoused individuals, but even for Watson, conducting this work has brought to light more complex, underlying causes of housing insecurity that often go ignored in the media. From struggles with addiction to the effects of a troubled childhood, work like Watson’s offers questions and answers, not blame and shame, about people experiencing homelessness.
“The reasons that people end up on the street are many, and they’re nuanced,” he explains. “If there’s a common denominator there, it’s some kind of pain and a lot of trauma.”
At the end of the day, these are the underlined, often ignored issues that TRESPASS brings up. These truths are hard, but they’re necessary. And for Watson, he hopes his photographs can spark something in someone that eventually contributes to helping the cause just as he continues to help his local communities.
“If we can feel something with this – something that makes you want to help, then I think the work has done its job,” he says. “These are our family members, our neighbors, our friends, so let’s take a beat, pay attention and open our hearts.”
To learn more about Kim Watson, please visit his website here. WM
Victor Sledge is an Atlanta-based writer with experience in journalism, academic, creative, and business writing. He has a B.A. in English with a concentration in British/American Cultures and a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University. Victor was an Arts & Living reporter for Georgia State’s newspaper, The Signal, which is the largest university newspaper in Georgia. He spent a year abroad studying English at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where he served as an editor for their creative magazine before returning to the U.S. as the Communications Ambassador for Georgia State’s African American Male Initiative. He is now a master’s student in Georgia State’s Africana Studies Program, and his research interest is Black representation in media, particularly for Black Americans and Britons. His undergraduate thesis, Black on Black Representation: How to Represent Black Characters in Media, explores the same topic.