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.
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.
“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.
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.”
Adding to the intimacy of the photos is Davidson’s use of black-and-white, a decision she made because the project was so driven by emotion. Her focus wasn’t on the role color played in the overall composition, and if a photographer doesn’t do that, she says, color can become visual pollution.
“This was not a beautiful National Geographic spread where color is the priority within the composition. This was about moments. I couldn’t really direct where color was falling into the composition and I didn’t want any visual distractions,” she explains. “I wanted people to go right to the heart and soul of the image and feel an emotional connection.”
Since the earliest days of her career, Davidson has focused on capturing the stories of people in the most vulnerable of situations. She has documented humanitarian crises brought on by war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Israel, Gaza and Bosnia, as well as the tsunami disaster in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Sichuan earthquake in China in 2008. While she has found herself on plenty of deadly front lines, she says she has never been a “bang-bang” kind of photographer. Her primary interest has always been in the women, children, elderly and others whose lives are permanently scarred because of conflict. With her series on gang violence, she simply took that sensibility and applied it to what was happening in her own backyard.
Once the photographs were published in print and online, dozens of the Times‘ readers called in wanting to help or donate clothing, furnishings, even an electric wheelchair. The website became a forum to discuss solutions for ending the violence and to debate related issues such as whether hip-hop glorifies gangs and whether social programs help or hurt. And with such interest from the public, Davidson had achieved what she set out to do, which was to create awareness and get a public dialogue going because that’s really the first step toward creating some kind of change, she says.
“This story became my beat, so that made it possible for me to get to really know these people,” she says. “As a photojournalist, you have to thoroughly understand the story you’re covering because that informs the kinds of images you take. So I have an idea of what I want to say and then I wait for those images to happen. You have to know what you want to show people and then the images fall into place. With this story, I was the reporter, the investigator, the photographer, the videographer and the director. I wore so many hats that I was really pushed out of my comfortzone. As a result, I feel so much more competent as a journalist. I don’t think there’s a story I won’t be able to tell now.”
And for this story, she now has another Pulitzer to go with the one she got in 2006 as part of The Dallas Morning News team that captured the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Mississippi. But Davidson’s tale doesn’t end with a champagne toast in the newsroom and warm, congratulatory hugs from coworkers. She plans to keep going back into these neighborhoods and showing the public the innocent faces affected by street violence.
“I will always have an interest in this story. I’m still connected to these families, so this issue will resonate with me for a very long time. I can’t just close the chapter after committing my full heart and soul to telling this story,” she says. “My whole goal was to create awareness, and because of the Pulitzer, this is now going worldwide. Some of these families are getting worldwide recognition. This is a story that’s not being told, and it’s one that can be told in any major city in the United States.”
To see more from Barbara Davidson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series, go to framework.latimes.com/2011/04/18/caught-in-the-crossfire-pulitzer/#/0.