Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer captures emotional, physical wounds from gang violence

Barbara Davidson‘s “Caught in the Crossfire” project, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in feature photography, features authentic images that tell untold stories, as they capture intimacy, depth and compassion.

The photographs in “Caught in the Crossfire” give people a reason to pause and reflect on how victims and their families have endured the effects of gang violence in Los Angeles. And they relay the seriousness of the issue in ways that words alone can’t.

I talked with the L.A. Times’ Davidson via email about her reporting process, why she chose the photos she did, and what advice she has for other journalists covering gang violence. You can read our Q&A, which has been edited for clarity, below.

Kenny Irby: Tell me about the “Caught in the Crossfire” project. How and why did you invest so much time, energy and staff resources into covering gang violence?

Barbara Davidson: We dug deep with this project so that our readers could get to know these families and have an understanding of the devastating impact of gang violence on innocent bystanders. Colin Crawford and Mary Cooney, my editors, decided at a certain point in the project that they would have to take me off the daily schedule so I could concentrate full-time on finding victims, doing video interviews, visiting with the families who were going to be a part of the story, going on police and fire ride-alongs, talking to gang interventionists, etc. To produce the multimedia piece, we needed a team. The amount of time and expertise our multimedia staff put into this project was inspiring.

How did you gain such intimate access to sources? And what was it like to manage so many relationships with people who had endured so much trauma?

“I spent one year covering more funerals than I have in my entire 18-year career,” said Barbara Davidson.

This project is as intimate as it is because of the time I spent getting to know the families. I remember saying to the families, ‘You are going to see me over and over and over again and you won’t see other media representatives coming back to listen to your story.’ And, that is indeed what happened, so they trusted me. They could see how much the issue meant to me and they liked that. They respected what I was doing and they felt people would listen to their stories through me.

I delved deeply into this story, and it took a heavy toll on me. I spent one year covering more funerals than I have in my entire 18-year career. But the families I was covering had a far deeper level of pain than I, and that fueled me to keep documenting their stories.

I was struck by the wide range of diverse individuals in your project. How did diversity play out in your reporting?

From the start I knew this project needed to be as diverse as possible in order for the story to resonate with as many people as possible. I didn’t want this story to be a clichéd investigation of one race, since it impacts all races. It would have been easy to focus on one race, but we knew that would not be a comprehensive look at the issue. So, I consciously looked for families of different races to be a part of this story.

You have covered stories like this before. What made these victims of gang violence unique?

We reported on this story in a unique way because we dug deep and followed families through the aftermath of being shot or having a loved one murdered. We spent time documenting what it’s like for these families months — and years — after their lives have been changed forever.

Were there times when you had to make compromises for the sake of the broader story and not take pictures? And if so, how did you justify your choices and actions?

There were times where I felt it was inappropriate to take pictures, either because it was just too invasive or because it was more important for me to be present with whomever I was with at the time. Sure, I missed some good pictures, but I come from the perspective — as cliché as it may seem — to operate as a person first and a journalist second. I don’t think I could have covered this story any other way.

“My editors agreed that black and white got the readers to the heart and soul of the images without any distractions,” said Davidson.

How did you gather audio and video, and how did teamwork come into play when doing this?

We decided to conduct all the interviews at the Los Angeles Times in one of our studios for a couple of reasons. One, we needed the technical control. We needed to have the best sound possible and we couldn’t get the consistency in the subjects’ homes. Two, we wanted the families to tell their stories in the privacy of our studio without any distractions.

I didn’t know what the effect would be, but it was heartbreaking. Every person we interviewed in the studio retold us his or her story as though it had just happened. It was very moving. I conducted the interviews and a videographer covered the technical aspects of the shoot. I wanted to be fully focused on the interviews because of their sensitive nature.

When I could, I also gathered audio in the field that I thought would help with transitions in the edit. You always miss a picture when you are trying to juggle both, but you have to sacrifice one or the other so that one is good quality.

This story was roughly 80 percent logistics and 20 percent shooting. Since this was a photo-driven project, I reported on the issue, investigated shootings, worked with gang intervention workers, checked in with reporters and detectives, gathered on-sight sound and videos, and researched as much as possible on the issue.

This story pushed me out of my comfort zone as a journalist because I was multitasking so much and performing tasks outside my shooting expertise. This was by far my most ambitious documentary project because it was such a complex issue with so many moving parts that I had to try to navigate in an uncontrolled environment.

How and when did you decide to make it a black and white project?

I felt this was a black and white essay from the start. When I first shared my photos with my editors, I did so in black and white.

Black and white was the way we looked at and edited the images from the beginning of the project. The images in this essay are moment-driven, and because of that I thought it would be best to go with black and white and not be distracted by color.

Color has to be an integral part of the composition for it to be used optimally. I was more driven by the interaction of the people in my photos vs. the color composition. My editors agreed that black and white got the readers to the heart and soul of the images without any distractions. We used the same sensibility for the video interviews because we wanted to have consistency with the feel of the project. We didn’t want to blend black and white and color together.

Did the use of social media and/or mobile technology impact your reporting at all?

Social media helped me circulate the story once it was published. I posted it on my Facebook page and on Twitter. The story quickly circulated because other journalists posted it, too. So social media was great in getting the word out about the project. Often the way I would keep up with the families would be through text messaging. And many times I gleaned important information via text messaging, too.

What did you learn from reporting this project?

To me, the most tragic element of what I learned reporting this issue is that it can be told in any major city of the United States. And the deeper I dug into this story, the more I realized that it’s time for journalists to start shedding light on under-reported stories in this country.

What advice can you offer to journalists who attempt to take on a similar project?

I would say that to take on a project like this, the photographer really has to research and be an expert on what it is they want to document. I wasn’t an expert when I first looked into the issue of gang-related violence, but I asked a lot of questions and read everything I could get my hands on about the issue.

Once you understand the issue you want to report on, the images will fall into place. I was lucky this project became my beat. All reporters have beats, which is why they get to know the issues they are covering so well. Photographers don’t have beats, so I think getting your editors on board with a really strong written proposal about the project you want to pursue — and then delivering photos to back up your written proposal — is the way to go.

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