Book Review: Trespass: Portraits of Unhoused Life, Love, and Understanding

Book Cover Images image of Trespass: Portraits of Unhoused Life, Love, and Understanding

by Kim Watson

    Publication Date: May 14, 2024
    List Price: $29.99
    Format: Hardcover, 200 pages
    Classification: Nonfiction
    ISBN13: 9781506491134
    Imprint: Broadleaf Books
    Publisher: 1517 Media
    Parent Company: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

    Read a Description of Trespass: Portraits of Unhoused Life, Love, and Understanding

    Book Reviewed by Clarence V. Reynolds

    Have you ever come upon or passed a homeless/unhoused person and experienced an emotion that tugged at you, and you were not sure how or in what way to react? A particular instance happened to Kim Watson when he and his wife were walking the streets of New York one winter evening, Watson’s reaction became the impetus for his most recent project Trespass: Portraits of Unhoused Life, Love, and Understanding. That day, he saw a man rummaging through an outside garbage can. “…It was my old friend. Cub Scouts, church, hanging out at high school basketball games, suite-mates in college, concerts in the city—and then.… I turned a blind eye to someone in need, a friend. And though that guilt may have softened with time, it has never left me,” Watson writes. “…On the path to understanding, I realized that it wasn’t a lack of empathy that struck me silent; instead, it was fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear that if someone close to me could fall that far from grace, perhaps I could too. I had let my fear overpower me—but that would be the last time I allowed it to interfere with my instinct to help.”

    For four years after that incident, Watson, a multi-hyphenate artist living in Los Angeles, documented and photographed unhoused people in his L.A. community as he delivered food to them from the back of his car. For Watson, who grew up in St. Albans, Queens, New York, his work in Trespass is centered on his own deeply personal connection and sense of care and concern that originated when he saw an old high school friend. Simply put, he wants people to be more understanding about the unhoused/homeless problem in America. Featured throughout the book are striking photographs and intimate black-and-white portraits of unhoused people he befriended as well as conversations and reflections on his encounters.

    Watson’s candid photographs allow the reader to glean the conditions of his subjects and the interviews bring the reader closer to understanding their plight. Their conversations are presented in a heartfelt tone, one that expresses the author’s compassion and in turn reflects the disappointments, hopes, regrets, and some of the deep feelings the subjects harbor within themselves. He shares parts of his conversations with more than twenty-five people, including Crystal, Elizabeth, Carlos, Don, Dadisi, Felicia and Leon, and Sasha among many others.

    While many of us may not completely comprehend the ways in which an unfortunate circumstance or traumatic element can lead to an unhoused situation, be it addiction, a personal hardship, loss of a job, mental or physical illness, this book offers a glimpse into the reality of what can occur. In the conversation with Dadisi Komolafe, for example, Watson shares the man’s story. Dadisi was a jazz musician and told Watson he had played with several jazz luminaries, recorded and toured across the U.S. and Europe. He had even recorded his own album titled Hassan’s Walk in 1983. As mentioned in the book, however, “he never signed a contract or received a royalty.”

    In that section, Watson later writes: “We think we know who someone is by what we see in front of us, but we merely witness a small moment of their journey. Someone’s past is not their present—nor must it define their tomorrow. To know someone, we must know who they were as much as who they are and always leave space for hope and possibility.” This sentiment touched me and still sticks with me.

    In a KTLA 5 TV interview, Watson said of the book’s title, “I liked that the idea comes from the question of who is trespassing on whom.” His book interrogates such an idea. The book is written in a clear, matter-of-fact tone that suitably serves its mission. The photographs as well as essays have an honest and trusting appeal; the portraits convey the various emotions of his subjects living and struggling in unimaginable conditions. The book also includes several poetic passages, such as “I Am Broken” in the section with Kim. I wonder if some parts of the poetic verse were ever uttered by the person spotlighted or if Watson was inspired to write it. The poem “In Plain Sight” introduces images of unidentifiable people walking along the streets. The odes could be associated with everyone spotlighted here. The sentiments and words seem to be dedicated to them all. To all people in a similar situation worldwide.

    The final sections of the book include “LA County Facts at a Glance” and “Notes” that provide statistics and resource information that was surely helpful to the author as he formulated his project. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), nearly 70,000 people were unhoused in the city as of September 2022.” (The 2023 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress from The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development states that “more than 650,000 people in America lack permanent shelters. That represents the most documented homeless individuals since the inaugural report produced in 2007 and reflects a 12 percent increase over 2022.) While Watson’s Trespass focuses on the unhoused conditions in Los Angeles, his book examines our humanity and invites us all to be more mindful of fellow citizens as they pertain to one of the biggest human tragedies we face today: homelessness. While some communities and policymakers are contemplating criminalizing homelessness, Watson wants us to “see” things differently.

    Kim Watson is a photographer, director, filmmaker, and writer who has worked in various entertainment platforms with studios such as Disney, PBS, Universal, and Warner Brothers, and publishers such as Simon & Schuster. He received recognition from the NAACP for his positive portrayals of African Americans, and his video work has received nominations from MTV and the Soul Train Awards. Regarding his Trespass project, Watson says on an Instagram post: “I was thinking about how we all use our different, varied gifts to address social needs, things that are dear to our hearts… something that goes beyond ourselves.”

    The famous Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide, one of my favorite artists, said: “The photographer interprets reality, he builds his own according to what he knows and his emotions.” With Trespass: Portraits of Unhoused Life, Love, and Understanding, the reader will be grateful that Kim Watson has unselfishly used his gifts to tell the stories of vulnerable individuals in need of support; he sheds light on a much-needed crucial issue and allows us to consider the conditions and solutions as they relate to a serious problem in our society.

    Read Broadleaf Books’s description of Trespass: Portraits of Unhoused Life, Love, and Understanding.

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