Tori and Melody were inseparable and had planned to go to college together. Tori was next to Melody when she was hit by a stray bullet after a football game. Image © Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times.
Barbara Davidson won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography this year for her exploration of gun violence in Los Angeles. She tells BJP how she was able to convince her editors to let her work on a two-year visual investigation
The Los Angeles Times introduced Barbara Davidson's two-year investigation of gun violence with these words: "For a decade, crime has tumbled across much of metropolitan Los Angeles. And yet, 5-year-old Josue Hercules' blood still stains the sidewalk. Rose Smith can't find the strength to tell her children that she's never going to walk again. Shameka Harris wonders why the bullets couldn't have hit her, instead of her young daughter. Despite the progress in crime-fighting, there remain pockets of L.A. County where each day brings peril. For two years, Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson has documented how victims and their families have endured the aftermath of violence."
Davidson's work has won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography and is now on show at the Visa Pour l'Image photojournalism festival in Perpignan. She catches up with BJP's news and online editor Olivier Laurent:
BJP: How did you start this project?
Barbara Davidson: I've been living in Los Angeles for four years, and about six months into my stay, I met a woman named Rose. She had been shot in the back. She was coming home from buying some groceries and there were two gangs at the end of the street that were fighting and a stray bullet hit her in the back. She was three months pregnant at the time and she had two young children - she was only 23 years old. She was left paralysed, but the baby survived. A detective called us and wanted us to do a story because it had been seven months and the case was cold. After I photographed her and spent some time with her, I really thought that this issue was really under-reported. For instance, Rose's story, when it happened, had not been covered. We, at the Los Angeles Times, entered her life seven months after it had happened. I had felt that there were a lot of other victims that I was coming across who weren't getting any coverage. So, through a lot of trial and errors, I convinced my editors that we should probably do a comprehensive visual investigation of what was happening in our community. I felt it was a responsibility to our readers. People in Los Angeles, sadly, have become very desensitised to gun shootings to the point that it's not longer news - except if it's someone important. There is a kind of inequality between who gets coverage. My idea was to document several different stories - people from different ages, different races, different situations, how it happened - and chronicle their lives over a three-year period to see how things like this play out.
BJP: How did you find the people you covered?
Barbara Davidson: It was very difficult, actually, because I wanted to document the people who were actually wounded, not just those who had died. But, while the police release the names of people who were murdered, they don't release the names of people wounded. So, I worked with a group called Gang Intervention Workers - these are people who, in a lot of cases, are former gang members themselves. Initially, when I met them, they really didn't want to have anything to do with me - they were polite, but they really gave me a hard time. It's a very insular community; they were very suspect of my motives. The press only goes to these neighbourhoods when something bad happens. They are not very trusting of the media, so I had to earn their trust.
BJP: How did you do that?
Barbara Davidson: I kept coming back. They have awareness campaigns for stories they want to get out; they have a lot of different events in the community and I kept covering them and I would try to get these stories in the paper. They saw that I had a vested interest in their community and that I was not just coming there to exploit them. The Gang Intervention Workers are very well connected in the community, and since these shootings happen a lot - everyone knows someone who's been shot. They started introducing me to families. Ironically, towards the end of the project, mothers started calling me directly. My number would be circulating and they would call me. It reached a point where I had to make a choice on who I would cover. It really turned around.
Davien Graham was sweeping the steps of his neighborhood church when he was shot in the back during a gang initiation. After four months in hospital, he is returning home, paralyzed for life. Image © Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times.
BJP: How did you convince your editors that this issue needed to be addressed in such a way?
Barbara Davidson: Once we had run Rose's story, there really wasn't an interest to continue. I couldn't muster up the interest, so I decided to continue on my own time; between my assignments. Then, I gave a formal proposal to my editors, who told me: "In the next six months, between your assignments, we'll give you some time to go and find stories. Bring the images back and let us see what you've find." Over time, my editors got to know the families through my photos and I kind of hooked them emotionally. They became attached to the people they were getting to know monthly. When they realised that there was quite a substantial body of work, they thought: "We need to consider this seriously." In order for me to be able to do that, they needed to take me off the schedule. In the last six months of the project, I was working on it full-time. As a newspaper photographer, that's really unusual. It really showed the commitment on behalf of the Los Angeles Times to tell this story. In the end, they run seven pages, which is also unusual. They also produced a multimedia piece.
BJP: What's your reaction to the recognition this work has received in the last few months?
Barbara Davidson: In many ways, it's obviously very humbling, but it's also surprising. I lived in a bubble with this story for so long, and people weren't seeing the images. They knew me speaking of this, and they thought I was nuts for working on it for so long - for example, I covered more funerals in one year than I have in my 18-year career. Many times I thought I failed because there were so many images that I thought were critical for the piece that I missed... I supposed I was, at the time, focussing more on what I was missing than what I had. But when the work was published and was received so well, it was humbling and wonderful.
BJP: How did the local community and the families react to the work?
Barbara Davidson: The families hadn't seen the images until they were published. I was very nervous when the piece ran. But the families told me they cried because they saw themselves for the first time. They thought it was very respectful and that I had told a fair story. I preserved their dignity. They were moved. For a lot of them, when they see themselves in a story like that, it's devastating. Also, when the story ran, there were a lot of positive reactions. People called to donate food, clothes or money. It made people see a part of Los Angeles that they don't usually see - that was really important.
BJP: Why choose multimedia to show the work?
Barbara Davidson: It's such a powerful medium - to have the victims to tell their stories and what happened to them. My photos don't have that much emotional impact compared to hearing someone describe how it was like to be shot. It also allows them to be a part of the process and of the story itself because they are taking a physical role in the storytelling.
BJP: Did you record the interviews yourself?
Barbara Davidson: I was always recording sound when shooting, mainly ambient sounds. As you know, it's very tricky to do both, so when I felt that the sound was more important than the images, I would lean on that further. But when we started to interview families, we did it in their homes. But after the first recording, we realised that the sound was too polluted - the TV next door blaring, a car in the street, etc. We took the difficult decision to bring them in our studio at the newspaper so we could get control of the sound. Originally, I didn't want to bring them in the studio because I thought it would be too clinical and that people would not connect to their own stories - some events had happened four years earlier. I thought it would never happened, but I can tell you that the isolation of that room brought them right back to the second it happened - right back to the second when their son was killed or right back to the second when they felt the bullet enter their bodies. People were so emotional - everyone cried.
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