Everyone has an idea of what Hawaii is like: white sandy beaches, lush green forests, towering mountain landscapes. Just like any other place, this beauty is masking real problems underneath. In the case of Hawaii, it is an epidemic of homelessness, and that is what called senior Lila Marks there to shoot her senior photography exhibit.
Marks’ show, “The Ignored,” deliberately juxtaposed Hawaii’s beauty with its homeless population in order to bring awareness to the issue. “It’s such an enormous issue that it’s hard to tackle it, so it’s easier for us to just push it to the side,” Marks said. The exhibit started as a text from one of Marks’ friends, saying that she should come to Hawaii after she graduated and do a photo essay on homelessness. “Me being me,” Marks said at her artist’s talk on Friday, Oct. 6, “I said, ‘why wait until I graduate?’”
The show hung in Margaret Martin Gehman Gallery from Oct. 2-6. One wall contained the more “typified” homelessness Marks found in Honolulu, and the other wall displayed homeless people who Marks had met in communities on the other side of the island. Interspersed throughout the photos of tent villages and world-weary faces were images of Hawaii’s beautiful sights.
Marks encountered difficulty when trying to approach people living in the city. Her first real contact with a homeless person was with a woman named Alice, who she met after touring the ‘Iolani Palace. After giving her a cigarette, Marks asked Alice how living on the street had affected her. “She put her thumbs down and said, ‘It sucks.’ But she was so warm and she didn’t seem as defeated as I had pictured,” Marks said. “When Alice was willing to say even one sentence, it busted open the project for me. [I realized] that I could do this.” Marks continued to spark conversation. This method worked more often, but people were still reluctant to share openly. “Even in the split second of me handing them a cigarette, I would get just a glimpse into their life.”
Outside of Honolulu, Marks began to make even more connections. She was introduced to a woman named Twinkle Borge, who ran a large camp called Pu’uhonua o Waianae, or the Refuge of Waianae. The refuge occupies an area of 19 acres and has a population of over 200 people — “not homeless, just houseless.” The people in the refuge are in constant danger of being evicted by the government, so Marks has decided to donate 10 percent of the profits from the sales of her frescos to Borge and her community, so they can fight to keep their community alive. Frescos can still be purchased on Marks’ website, lilamarks.com.
Marks had hoped to return with a solution to the homelessness problem, but no one distinct action emerged as the right one. “There’s not one way you can tackle this issue, because there are so many reasons that people are homeless,” she said. In her experience, she encountered drug addiction, mental illness, and people who simply could not afford to own or rent a home with Hawaii’s high cost of living. “[It is a] much more vast and complex of an issue than what I perceived.”
“[Marks] wanted to do something that would step up her photography and editorial skills,” said Professor of Visual and Communication Arts Jerry Holsopple. “[The show] interrogates our fascination with beautiful landscape photographs. By putting them next to images of people who live in this environment.” Holsopple taught many of Marks’ photography classes and has been an influential presence in her academic career. “I thought [going to Hawaii] would challenge her and give her a chance to do something of value.”
When she graduates in the spring, Marks wants to continue to learn by doing activist photography. She has been an advocate for victims of sexual assault, women’s rights, and people dealing with mental illness. “I have a lot of passions that I’m not super informed about and I just want to keep learning and growing through my lens,” she said. “That’s how I connect with people.”