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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Jamiel Shaw Sr. kneels before his son's coffin. Standing, from left, are the victim's mother, Anitia Shaw, brother Thomas and aunt Althea Shaw. "To see my son lying there dead, in a casket, to be shot, slaughtered like a dog—it makes you want to go out there and just round up everybody that's in a gang, and makes you want to be a crime fighter."
"I like to be very close up to the subject because I want there to be an intimate connection between the subject and viewer. I want viewers to feel like they are there," Davidson says. "Physically, I get very low to the ground, crouching down a lot and sometimes rolling up into this little ball. People laugh when they see me shoot."

To achieve this kind of intimacy, she would first have to spend a considerable amount of time without a camera in hand. She would visit with families, often from the beginning of their ordeal, and explain that she was doing a comprehensive story about innocent victims of gang violence.

"I was up front right away. If a loved one had been murdered, I would go and visit the family every day. The media is going to come and leave in three days," she would tell the families, "but you can count on me to be here again and again and again. These folks can tell when you're sincere. So I didn't have a problem getting access."

As she spent more time in these neighborhoods, word of mouth began to spread with various agents speaking out on her behalf, whether it was a family spokesperson, a gang interventionist or a shooting victim. Davidson became a trusted member of the community and was called on to document a variety of events, including birthday parties and cemetery visits. She was invited into locker rooms, hospital rooms and bedrooms, by people who shared their tears, prayers, shock and sheer anger that such senseless and unjust acts of violence could hurt or take away a loved one's life.

 
You have to learn to read faces very quickly when telling these kinds of stories. You have to know what's appropriate and what's not," she explains. "Any subtle shift in a facial expression or body language will tell you what's appropriate.
 

Josue Hercules, 4, was playing with his sister outside their home in Los Angeles County when shots rang out. The children fled, but a bullet struck Josue in the back of the head. "Before the shooting, Josue was a calm boy," said his mother, Wendoly Andrade. Now, "he gets very angry...and fights with his siblings a lot."

With such emotional stories to tell, Davidson knew she had to tread carefully. Though she's never had anyone close to her murdered, she could relate to the pain and loss felt by her subjects having lost her mother to cancer. She used that experience as a guide of sorts for figuring out where she could stand, what she could ask and how to interact with people who were in the midst of an extremely painful time.

"You have to learn to read faces very quickly when telling these kinds of stories. You have to know what's appropriate and what's not," she explains. "Any subtle shift in a facial expression or body language will tell you what's appropriate."

Some situations were trickier than others, as she found some families that weren't onboard with the project. But Davidson didn't encounter much resistance because she mostly worked with people who were as fully committed to her as she was to them.

"This subject matter is so sensitive and raw and difficult that I didn't want to go back and forth. This story was 90 percent working out logistics and 10 percent shooting," she says. "So I needed to find people who were fully onboard from the get-go."

 

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