It makes sense that Barbara Davidson is a child of immigrants. The photographer gives off the air of someone who has fought hard to find her place in foreign landscapes. She has seen things: wars, shootings, natural disasters, famine. She’s so sensitive about accuracy and truth that she called a week after our interview to confirm her quotes so they wouldn’t be misconstrued; it’s the trait of a reporter, a truth-teller.
It’s these qualities that serve Davidson well on days like December 2, 2015. While on daily assignment for The Los Angeles Times—where she has been on staff since 2007—Davidson got the email that numerous people were shot in San Bernardino. Immediately, she called the Times desk and was dispatched to the emergency room at the Loma Linda University Medical Center (an hour and 15 minutes east of L.A.), where the injured were being taken.
Operating on a mix of adrenaline and the kind of calm that cloaks a seasoned journalist, Davidson arrived at the scene and took her place among other photographers, photographing at a respectful distance with a 400mm lens as ambulances arrived and shooting victims were ushered in.
One resulting image is of 25 or so hospital workers swarming an incoming patient—a police officer—with white sheets and hospital dividers to shelter him from the press. It ran the next day as one of the lead images in a Times special section, as well as on the latimes.com website.
“San Bernardino was really a team response,” Davidson says. “Our staff synchronized and worked hard to give a well-rounded look at what was happening there. The notion of being a team player was in full swing at that point.”
It’s a process Davidson is familiar with: Story breaks, get to the scene, execute the telling of the story with her lens, and deliver an important piece of journalism to the newsroom. Aside from being on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Israel and Gaza, there was the tsunami disaster, the earthquake in China and the Hurricane Katrina fallout (for which Davidson won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography with her then-team at The Dallas Morning News). Her years of covering crisis situations have made her a master, not only of making photographs that are front-page-worthy (in addition to Pulitzers, Davidson also has earned Picture of the Year International honors), but of putting emotions aside to do the job at hand.
Davidson grew up in Canada, one of seven children of Irish parents who used photographs to help their children feel connected to grandparents and family back home. Her grandfather was the original photographer in the family, with his own darkroom, passing along his photographic memories and love of the craft to Davidson’s father, who then passed it on to Davidson herself.
“I learned about my entire extended family and their culture through this collection of photographs that my grandfather had made,” she explains. “Photographs were always revered because they were a connection to where we came from.”
At 15, she decided to be a photographer, before ever shooting a roll of film. A close friend was the photo editor at The McGill Daily, a local student newspaper, and gave Davidson the opportunity to produce some images.
“From the first roll of film I ever shot with a 35mm camera, an image was published,” Davidson says. “I was hooked because it’s so cool and addictive—you could go out and make pictures, and then see the process of how these pictures make their way into newspapers.”
From there, it was a linear path: a BFA in photography and film studies from Concordia University (photojournalism wasn’t offered as a major in Montreal then); practical experience on the school newspaper; and a first job at The Waterloo Region Record in southern Ontario.
While working in Ontario, up popped a gnawing itch Davidson had to scratch. “I had always wanted to be a war photographer,” she says.
“I’m a strong believer that, as journalists, the cardinal rule is to not be dignity robbers.”
So she took a leave of absence from The Record to work with The Red Cross in Bosnia and cover the end of the Bosnian War. As a young photographer, there couldn’t have been a more barbed entry into the field. Along with her driver, Davidson was held captive by a Serbian paramilitary outfit, unsure of whether she’d live or die. After being released after 48 hours, her perspective changed. “It was such a terrifying experience that it made me question whether I really wanted to do this war photography,” she says.
But six months after the incident, upon returning home, Davidson knew she needed more than the parameters of a small-town newspaper. “I realized that if I was ever going to be the photojournalist that I dreamed to be, I needed the infrastructure to help me get there.”
WHITE HOUSE BEAT
On the strength of her work in Bosnia, Davidson applied for an open position at The Washington Times, and got it. “It was a fantastic leap from small town,” she says.
Now in Washington, the still-green Davidson was working alongside some of her heroes, staff photographers at The Times and The Washington Post. During her first week on The White House beat, the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke.
For Davidson, covering a massive international story and for the first time a member of the press pack, it was an opportunity to prove herself. “I actually was in the room when Bill Clinton shook his finger and said, ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman,’” Davidson remembers. “I was so nervous that my hands were shaking, as well as my lens, so I was lucky I got a picture in focus.”
Not only was it in focus, but her photos made the front page of The Times seven days in a row. It was the quickest way to acceptance and respect among her more experienced peers, a time Davidson remembers as “incredibly intoxicating and invigorating,” she says.
Longtime TIME Magazine photographer and Hillary Clinton documentarian Diana Walker was also on the story. “I would come into the briefing room, and Diana would look at me and say, ‘Okay, kid, what have you got today?’” Davidson says. “And I’d hand her the newspaper with my photo. She was such a badass, and one of the few women doing it in her day, so it was cool that she was so supportive.”
THE CUMULATIVE EFFECT
After Washington, Davidson moved to staff jobs at The Dallas Morning News and, since 2007, The Los Angeles Times.
Once a photographer who jumped at the chance to embed with troops in Iraq, the death of a soldier she was close to—and loss of peers including Chris Hondros, Tim Hetherington and Anja Niedringhaus—has made Davidson less inclined to gamble with senseless death. “I’m not going to Syria, I don’t want to risk it,” she explains. “My friends and family would be left behind, haunted by that knowledge [of what happened], and I don’t want to put them through that.”
But Davidson will still travel—like she did to document the famine in Kenya in 2011 or to India where she’s currently researching a story about the sex trafficking of young girls. Considering herself a journalist first and a photographer second, her in-depth stories are primarily self-generated.
“I’m happiest to do feature-based news stories, where I’m alone, documenting an important social issue in a country in conflict,” she says. “I’m still very passionate about those issues, I still want to tell those issues, and I still live for those issues.”
And there’s also the domestic stories, which allow her to flex her strongest muscle: creating images rife with emotion by circling her subjects with a radiant field of empathy and respect.
“I’m a strong believer that, as journalists, the cardinal rule is to not be dignity robbers,” she says. “We have a lot of power working in communities where people are suffering, and the number-one priority for us should be safeguarding the dignity of the people we’re documenting; they should always be the star of your photograph—they should come first.”
This approach is evident in the quiet black-and-white series of the effects of gang violence in Los Angeles—for which Davidson won a second Pulitzer independently in 2011—and in “A Healing Bond,” a 2013 series documenting two American sisters caring for an Afghan child who was sent to Los Angeles for excruciating medical care. (In the same year, Davidson was honored as the POYi Newspaper Photographer of the Year.)
For Davidson, awards like Pulitzers are most valuable in the ways they can amplify a story’s reach and bring broader awareness; they also act as currency in the newsroom, eliciting trust from editors. But she says that the loss of her mother in 2006 (the year of her first Pulitzer and POYi) gave her a clear understanding of the true value of accolades.
“While I was experiencing the highest highs professionally during the first part of the year, it was the lowest lows personally,” she says. “It was a very humbling experience, and I’m still very grounded in those successes. The one beautiful thing is that my mother lived long enough to see me achieve those goals. I was very glad of that; it made her incredibly proud.”
Follow Barbara Davidson on Twitter and Instagram @photospice, and read her blog at framework.latimes.com/reframed.