Photographer Sasha Cutter, along with her twin brother Knut, has been documenting the lives of Hawaii’s Waianae Coast residents for the past three years. Many of the subjects live in makeshift homes or tents, exposing a much harder life than the idealized version most of us hold of island life in the Aloha State. After the jump, read Eric Ducker’s essay on Cutter’s photography from FADER 57, and click here to watch the last in our series of slideshows, narrated by four of Waianae’s residents.
On the Westside of Oahu, running along the two lanes of Farrington Highway is a thirteen-mile stretch called the Waianae Coast. Like all beaches in Hawaii, this stretch is public land, and over the past five years or so it has become a town of its own, the home of approximately thirteen hundred people.
In Hawaii’s modern history, western Oahu has been known as the locals’ side of the island. It’s also the semi-arid desert side, meaning the temperature gets up into the nineties and it’s prone to tropical storms. The tourism industry and most of Oahu’s population are tethered to Honolulu, but development has started encroaching further west, leading to whole pre-fabricated neighborhoods built to attract those with high incomes, eliminating the physical distance between the poor and the wealthy. Not only have those who traditionally live in western Oahu had to contend with Hawaii’s high cost of living, there are also the compounding issues like the inflating price of health care, a growing number of crystal meth addicts, a neglected public education system and a minimum wage of $7.25 in one of this country’s most expensive states.
Sasha Cutter first began photographing the residents of Waianae Coast three years ago. Her twin brother Knut has lived on the western side of Oahu for a decade, and together they document its people—her with a camera and him with an audio recorder. What they originally thought would be a project about the island’s indigenous people and land use turned out to be about the life of America’s underclass, made plain against the backdrop of sand and ocean. Among makeshift homes is a community for whom so-called affordable housing isn’t affordable enough. It’s a mix of native Hawaiians, Samoans, Filipinos, Chinese and those who’ve moved from the mainland. The Cutter siblings have listened to the stories of an ice addict who was injured in a hit and run, a couple who fish the Pacific to sell their neighbors dinner, and a bitter veteran who described how doctors botched his scrotal surgery but wouldn’t give him pain medication because it would admit culpability. James Bullock moved to Hawaii from Seattle in 1968 with his now-divorced wife and used to operate heavy machinery before he started going blind. Even still, he said of Oahu, “This is like paradise to me.” April, a woman with four children in foster care who now keeps the peace on her part of the coast tells them, “People who don’t live on this beach, or any beach, they don’t understand the facts. They got to handle themselves wherever they go, respect themselves wherever they go. They can call us homeless, houseless, whatever, I could care less. I got a roof over my head, even if it is a tent.” And though some outsiders may harbor naïve fantasies about a life camping on Hawaii’s beaches, be certain, this is not easy living—this is life through the holes in America’s safety net.