DPP Home Profiles Carolyn Cole: Running In

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Carolyn Cole: Running In

L.A. Times staff photographer and Pulitzer Prize winner Carolyn Cole wants to make a contribution

DPP: Were you inspired by any photographers in particular?

Cole: One of my first teachers was photojournalist Larry Price. I remember his dedication, the long hours he spent in the darkroom perfecting black-and-white prints of stories he had covered all over the world. During college, I also learned about the work Susan Meiselas was doing in Central America. I didn’t realize how few women were in the field, but even then I admired her courage.

DPP: How would you describe your style? How did you develop your eye?

Cole: One of my other mentors, Kim Komenich of The San Francisco Chronicle, told me that there are two types of photographs—those that speak about the photographer and those that speak about the subject. At some point, I stopped worrying about trying to develop a personal style and I focused on the subjects. Over time, hopefully a style develops, but in a natural way. I’m not an artist or a documentary photographer. I’m a photojournalist.

DPP: What makes you take on the difficult photojournalistic assignments you often do in places ranging from your work in Afghanistan to Liberia to Haiti?

Cole: I’ve been fortunate in my career by starting at smaller newspapers and working my way up to The Los Angeles Times. That gave me time to develop my skills and confidence. One of my first jobs was at The El Paso Herald-Post, where I covered both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. I also spent two years freelancing in Mexico City, which taught me how to work on my own.

As I progressed to bigger markets, the news I covered changed from local to national and international. Without those early experiences, I don’t think I would have been prepared to cover Iraq and Afghanistan. I never expected to cover global conflicts, but I’ve developed a strong sense of purpose. I believe it’s our job to inform readers about what’s going on and hopefully make people care. That’s what keeps me going.
I believe it’s our job to inform readers about what’s going on and hopefully make people care. That’s what keeps me going.
DPP: You’ve covered many dangerous situations at home, including the 1997 nationally televised bank shootout in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. Your photograph of dying bank robber Emil Matasareanu was used as evidence in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by his family. Your pictures also helped the Times win a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the event. How were you able to get yourself to the location in time to cover the unfolding events of that day?

Cole: In news photography, you have to see it happening. I’ve learned to keep going until I get to the heart of the story. It’s become instinctual. Often what’s important to show is in a place others don’t want you to be. In the case of the North Hollywood shootout, I drove straight to the back of the bank. I could hear gunfire, but couldn’t see anything, so I started running toward the sound to a side street where I found the two bank robbers, who had been shot, one still alive.

Being a witness to events as they unfold is a responsibility I take seriously. No matter what side of a conflict I find myself on, I always try to capture what’s happening in front of me as honestly and accurately as possible.


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