Diana Kim had a tough childhood, bouncing from place to place in search of a permanent home. She spent her younger years living at relatives’ homes, staying with friends, or in parks and cars. She was just a little girl when her parents separated. After her fifth birthday, she only ever saw her father a handful of times and their relationship grew even more strained.
Now 30 years old, the Honolulu, Hawaii-based photographer and law student is a mother of two and happily married, but she never could shake the feeling that things could have been different.
In 2003, as a student, Kim began photographing homeless people on the street for a personal project that would eventually lead to The Homeless Paradise, an initiative dedicated to humanizing the homeless by sharing their stories. Although her project shaped much of her life and her decision to go to law school, the biggest impact came in 2012. While documenting homeless people on the streets of Honolulu, Kim came across her own father.
When Diana saw him for the first time in years, he was standing on a street corner, staring at the asphalt below – unwashed, dressed in rags, and extremely thin. Worst of all, he didn’t acknowledge her presence. Kim’s father was struggling with mental illness and try as she might, she could not get his attention.
“I could tell it was him by his posture and of course, his face,” she said. “
He had a distinct way of standing and walking” – a gait that family members had told her was similar to her own.
A woman noticed what she was doing and told her, “Don’t bother. He’s been standing there for days.” This broke Diana’s heart, but she simply replied, “I have to try.” And that’s exactly what she did for the next two years.
During those long two years, she would return to look for her father, try, and offer him help, and attempt to connect with him. She didn’t know if she would ever be able to truly reconnect with her father, but she refused to give up. She made small breakthroughs, including a heartbreaking conversation where her father told her:
“Diana, I am so sorry for not being in your life. I am so happy that you have a family of your own now. Do better for them.”
It was in this moment that she forgave her father for all of the hurt and vowed to do everything she could to help him. But soon after, she received a call telling her that her father had suffered a heart attack. But her father’s time in the hospital turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Though he struggled often with his recovery, it led him to seek treatment for his mental illness. And so he began the slow and arduous path to recovery. Two months after his heart attack, Diana received a phone call from a number she didn’t know – her father had called her.
“As I pulled up into the parking lot, I saw my father’s figure and my heart nearly stopped. He looked better than I had expected and so different from the last image I had of him in the hospital,” Kim said.
“It felt so good to see him so healthy and standing so tall again. We must have hugged for a couple of minutes.”
This euphoric moment would not be their last. Over the next few months, Diana learned to “navigate” all of her regrets and pains and to let them go. It was as if she was meeting her father for the first time.
She channeled her story into a renewed effort to advocate for those who cannot help themselves, particularly sufferers of mental illness.
Her father is also doing better. He is actively looking for a job, happily spending time with friends and family, and eagerly anticipating a trip to South Korea to visit relatives.
“Every day is a gift. 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. I never had a relationship with my father growing up, and there was a lot he did and didn’t do that hurt me, but I have chosen to forgive him so we can move forward.”