DPP Home Profiles Barbara Davidson: Forgotten Shots

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Barbara Davidson: Forgotten Shots

Los Angeles Times photojournalist Barbara Davidson chronicles the overlooked journey of those affected by street violence, many of them innocent victims. The work culminated in her winning a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year.

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Rashaun Williams, 29, weeps with exhaustion after coming home for the first time since she was shot. Williams had recently moved from South Los Angeles to Lancaster to keep her 6-year-old daughter away from gang violence. She was visiting her mother in South L.A. when she was hit by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting.

The world that Barbara Davidson has come to know is one that most people don't read, see or hear much about these days. But for the mothers, fathers, spouses, siblings and friends who have lost loved ones to gang violence and whom Davidson has spent the last few years photographing, it's a world that's all too real.

In the days after Melody Ross was shot to death outside her high school's homecoming football game, there were candlelight vigils as well as bake sales to help raise money for the funeral. In Melody's honor, songs and raps were written, filmed and sent over the Internet.
While gang violence remains a problem in every major city across the United States, gone are the days when the general public found it a major issue of concern. This is mainly because when officials in metropolises from New York City to Los Angeles talk about crime, they often point to the steady downward trajectory of violent crime over the last two decades. Across all categories, including murder, the crime rate is down significantly, with big cities accounting for the largest drop, according to FBI figures. In Los Angeles, the city that Canada native Davidson now calls home, there were fewer than 300 murders last year, a figure not seen since the late 1960s. Overall, violent crime in the U.S. fell 5.5% from 2009 to 2010.

But statistics rarely tell the whole story, and in Los Angeles County, there are communities where gun violence is still troubling, perhaps making the stories captured by Davidson even more important to tell because national and local statistical trends don't represent what's happening in these neighborhoods. This formed the backbone of the argument she used to persuade her editors at The Los Angeles Times why this was a project worthy committing to as a long-term feature that would ultimately take up more than two years of her life.

"These families aren't interested in statistics; they want their stories told and they want some recognition," she says. "The numbers don't matter. Even one person is too many. These families' lives are forever changed, and their stories are often totally forgotten."
By concentrating on the survivors, Davidson portrays the issue of gang violence in a way that few photojournalists do today. The photographs are so intimate, the viewer can tell that great care has gone into their composition.
Focusing on a single issue over a series of photographs that tells multiple stories calls for a different approach than rushing out to cover breaking news. These weren't photos made from a distance or in a passing manner; they were the result of a photographer who had invested a great deal of time and energy in getting to know and earning the trust of her subjects. Her effort to document how victims and their families endure in the aftermath of violence led her all over south Los Angeles and into some intensely private and insular communities. That path, which would end with her receiving a Pulitzer Prize for feature photography, included stops in Long Beach, Lancaster, Compton and Watts.

By concentrating on the survivors, Davidson portrays the issue of gang violence in a way that few photojournalists do today. The photographs are so intimate, the viewer can tell that great care has gone into their composition. In one of the images, a father kneels at his son's coffin with his eyes closed shut. The son was a high-school football star gunned down by gang members. For Davidson, who was the only photographer the family allowed inside the church, this was one of the first funerals she photographed. She was allowed to stand just behind the coffin next to a family friend, giving her the kind of access needed to be "a fly on the wall," which she says was her goal throughout the project. In another captivating image, a teenager watches as her best friend's coffin is lowered into the ground. She and her friend were leaving a homecoming football game as shots were fired. When she ducked down and turned to ask her friend if she was okay, she saw that she had been shot in the head.


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