A multi-dimensional artist with decades of experience, Kim Watson
has written, filmed, and photographed subjects ranging from the iconic entertainers of our time to the ''invisible'' people of marginalized communities. A highly influential director in music videos' early days, Watson has directed Grammy winners, shot in uniquely remote locations, and written across genres that include advertising, feature films for Hollywood studios such as Universal (Honey), MTV Films, and Warner Brothers, and publishers such as Simon & Schuster.
His passionate marriage of art and social justice has been a life-long endeavor, and, in 2020, after consulting on Engagement & Impact for ITVS/PBS, Kim returned to the streets to create TRESPASS, documenting the images and stories of LA's unhoused. TRESPASS exhibited at The BAG (Bestor Architecture Gallery)
in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, September 17, 2022 – October 11, 2022.
Nate Thomason asked him a few questions about his life and work for All About Photo
Nate Thomason: Can you give a little background about yourself and how you got started in the arts?
I have been writing and directing for quite a while and photography was always a part of my life. Both my father and uncle were artists in their own right and their photography was always around me, so it came naturally. I still have photos of my father's light studies. When I was a little kid, my uncle would return from various adventurers and I would sit watching his slide shows projected on the wall. I think my directing work is just an extension of my love of photography.
What was some of your earlier work like? What inspired you then?
I was really inspired by the covers of magazines like LIFE and photography magazines I saw around the house. Gordon Parks and William Claxton were favorites of mine growing up. They were gifted technically, but they also captured the spirit of their subjects. Their photographs revealed something meaningful and each picture told a story. My early work was always about story. Whether it was headstones in a cemetery (which I loved shooting) or fishermen pulling in their catch in a Nigerian fishing village, I wanted the viewer to see and understand something in a way they had not seen or understood before. When I started my career as a filmmaker, the composition and lighting that was so important to me as a young photographer were just as important to me as a filmmaker. Now I get to do both and it's a real thrill.
How has working with multiple forms of art helped your current artistic journey?
I love shifting between forms and different expressions of my creativity. That is something I started to understand later in my career, and I love discovering and rediscovering different ways to share what I am seeing and feeling. The constant sense of discovery about myself inspires me to tell new stories without the boundaries of labels. I won't allow anyone to stick me in a box.
Do you have a favorite form of art, or one that you feel the most comfortable creating?
That's a great question. I feel comfortable creating in whatever form inspires me at the moment. That doesn't mean I'm equally adept at all forms, only that I am free enough, or crazy enough, to go for it and let the chips fall where they may. I was a musician before returning to school for film, started directing and writing, then returned to my love of photography, which has led me back to directing the documentary and writing the book for TRESPASS. What a wild journey.
Most of your photographic work tends to focus on people's personal stories. How do you interact with your subjects and how do you capture their stories in such an intriguing way?
I'm happy it touches you. I was born and raised in New York, a city that doesn't allow you to hide from the realities of life. Everything is in your face. This has enabled me to be comfortable and connect with total strangers. So, my subjects are not just subjects. Most I have come to know over long periods of time and even years. I see and listen to them without judgment. These relationships mean a lot to me. My openness and respect for whoever I photograph allow us to share the experience on a very intimate level.
What drew you towards capturing the unhoused population in L.A.?
My family and I have been taking food out to the streets for years, and I've been interested in that community for a long time. So when the pandemic hit, everything slowed down in LA and I had time to think about what I saw across the city. It was a time of deep reflection for me.
I had made friends with many of the unhoused over the years. I knew how interesting and intelligent many were. They were creative or had run businesses; they had families and dreams. I wanted everyone to see them for who they really are not who the myths and misinformation tell us they are. These are our family, neighbors, and friends, and we need to acknowledge and help them. That's how TRESPASS came into being. It's the most fulfilling work of my life, and I also think it's my best work creatively.
In your exhibition, Trespass, you incorporate photography along with writing. What brought you to that decision of adding another layer to the storytelling of your photography?
The writing became a part of the project organically. I wrote because it allowed me to go deeper into the conditions I witnessed and the stories I heard. And, to be honest, I needed that emotional outlet as well. I spend a lot of time on the streets and witness human suffering in a very personal and intimate way. It's sometimes overwhelming, so I'm grateful that everyone has responded positively and appears to have been moved by the words. While a picture tells a thousand words, the writing in TRESPASS allows me to expose myself, and my friends, in profoundly honest and vulnerable ways.
What was the process like while you were shooting Trespass?
I continue to shoot TRESPASS, and the process is pretty simple, really. I drive around LA, walk around downtown or my neighborhood, and talk to old friends and strangers. The process is emotionally grueling. Lots of crying, I admit. It's exhausting but not as exhausting as staying awake all night so I don't get raped or assaulted. That is what many women experience daily. The real question is, what is my subject's process? How do they make it day after day under unimaginable circumstances? Their very survival is proof that there is strength in the human spirit.
Do you have any advice or areas where people can help the unhoused, whether in L.A. or elsewhere?
Pressuring our representatives is essential. We must continue to not only build empathy for this community but keep pushing hard for more innovative and effective policies. We must keep a fire lit beneath the politicians or they will do nothing. But, just as important, is saying hello to someone without a home. Look them in the eye and say good morning. On a hot day, put some bottles of water in the cooler and hand them to the homeless as you drop the kids off at school. You'll see a face light up. Little by little, we can touch someone and show them that we really do care about them.
What projects do you see yourself pursuing in the future?
I'm wrapping up the exhibition at The BAG (Bestor Architecture Gallery) in Silver Lake and will work on the book and documentary through the New Year. After that, I hope to expand the exhibition to an industrial-size immersive installation that brings the housed and unhoused communities together to promote compassion and seek actionable solutions to the crises. Meanwhile, I'm conceptualizing a new project that will shed light on another misunderstood cultural phenomenon, but it's a secret for now. So, stay tuned.