Saturday, October 24, 2015

They Shot with Bullets and She with a Camera: Journey of Barbara Davidson

(Barbara Davidson by Jacques Vroom)

People live in conflict zones. A conflict zone need not necessarily be a war zone, a border or a place where ethnic killing in progress. A conflict zone could be right here, right in the midst of us and right here within our families. Crisis strikes, people get hurt, injured, maimed, made immobile for life at times physically and often mentally, families disintegrate, love perishes, children get scattered, aggression finds new forms and several are the aftermaths of each conflict. Perhaps, conflict ends and peace is maintained by force or by habit. Political people and armies assure that there will be no more conflicts. But where do you bury the memories? A society in its collective existence might help itself to erase the bad memories, but the individuals remain, always reminded of the scars that the conflicts have left on them. Even the collective unconscious of the society at times brings it back, the scars and reactions of/on the conflicts that had happened sometime back, in fresh forms of violence, aggression and not the least in the forms of lethargy.

(all the pictures including this one are by Barbara Davidson)

However, the great force to live, the very life spirit goad people towards shinier futures and greener pastures; sometimes they achieve it right in the middle of the erstwhile conflict zones and some other times they gain it from the places where they have migrated to. That’s what exactly the Los Angeles based photojournalist from the reputed Los Angeles Times, Barbara Davidson aims to capture in her photo works. Ms.Davidson believes like a life mantra that conflicts are not something that erupts and ends with or without legal interferences or human persuasions. She firmly believes that conflict is something that grows in different forms, in memories, in collapses and in the attainment of greater life forces. The aftermath, that’s her theme for she knows for sure that as a photojournalist she cannot be everywhere to intervene and stop conflict, which is humanely impossible. What she could do is to follow the victims, the left outs of the crises and let the world know about them so that never ever such conflicts would be encouraged. It has been a huge fight for Ms.Davidson for many in the editorial boards where she used to work and even in her latest work place, Los Angeles Times, such conflicts and its outcomes are ‘normal’. In one of her notes she says that an editor, seeing her enthusiasm to file such stories told her, ‘such things happen (random shoot outs –one of the horrendous chains of incidents that shook Los Angeles for years together) that’s why they aren’t news any more.’ 

It is not just history that repeats itself as farce, conflicts too. However, Ms.Davidson was not ready to see the aftermaths of conflicts as farces that should be academically verified based on historical learnt in classrooms or in libraries or in boardrooms. It was quite a difficult to journey for her. A photojournalist can take thousands of photographs but it is seriously an issue how many of it would ever see the light of the day through the newspapers and magazines and how many of them would eventually demand a follow up either from the people or from the authorities. Ms.Davidson has been successful in getting the attention of the editors eventually and it was not in futile either. The world of journalism accepted and recognized her works and awarded with the Pulitzer Prize twice in 2006 (for spot reporting Hurricane Katrina) and in 2011 (for featuring the gang war victims in Los Angeles). In 2014 Ms.Davidson was given the ‘International Newspaper Photographer of the Year’ for the second time. Perhaps conflict is an interesting subject like salt as there is no place in the world which is devoid of conflicts. While the scale and magnanimity could vary, conflict is the theme and backdrop of our lives irrespective of the glorious histories that the countries have. Hence, her photographs on the subject of conflicts have gained more circulation now than her other works and Ms.Davidson is not apologetic about it. According to her, the more people see them the more they get sensitized.

Born in Montreal, Canada, Ms.Davidson is of Irish origin. Her grandparents migrated to Canada and she is the third generation Irish who could call herself a natural Canadian. In Delhi, when she stands in a packed narrow hall with her power point presentation, a question coming from a youngster about her privileged identity of being a white woman in the conflict zones cannot be laughed off; she fields it well. Ms.Davidson was raised in Montreal and she spent her life in poverty. Her parents did not have running water or washroom facilities. But she could see them when she was a child but money was not flowing exactly the way money in the plumbing systems was flowing. She saw her family falling apart and she was raised by her mother. She takes pride being brought up by a single parent but she says that he has never been privileged and when you are not a privileged person your skin colour does not matter. As they say it, there is a first world in every third world and a third world in every first world. A white working class person or a white person in a first world is as poor as a deprived coloured person in first or the third world. Hence, Ms.Davidson asserts that while her skin colour has given her some distinction while working in certain conflict zones predominantly populated by black or coloured people, she never feels that privilege within her. Being white is not a sin and being black is not a sin either. Perhaps, in my view, we become complexion conscious only when we attach the idea of power with complexion; mostly it is white and at times it could be black and other colours too.

The highly acclaimed series of Ms.Davidson is a series of photographs done on the incidents of random shoot outs between gangsters in Los Angeles. They simply take out gun and fire at innocent people, if they are not really fighting against each other. Gun culture has become a social menace in Los Angeles during the last one and half decade. When Ms.Davidson turned her eyes to the victims of such shoot outs, the subject had already lost its steam as the incidents had become ‘common and natural’ therefore not newsworthy. Ms.Davidson did not really want to pursue the conflict as conflict as she did not want to shoot the dangerous shoot outs like a Hollywood dame in a photographer’s guise would do. She preferred to follow the aftermath stories; how conflicts changed the course of the life of people, mostly victims, forever.  When she managed to get the works printed in the LA Times, suddenly the authorities and society woke up to the post-conflict trauma that the victims lived. There are many touching stories that Ms.Davidson has been pursuing for a long time (as she shows the photograph of a kid and tells the audience that now he has grown to her shoulder level) but the one I like most is a young black man cleaning the window screen of a car. It is obviously taken from within the car that means at that time Ms.Davidson was inside the car. The story goes like this. Cremation of the dead bodies is a very expensive affair. If the dead body has offensive and telling tattoos (showing their affiliation to the operating gangs in the area) they will not get any help while the poor victims who get caught in the cross fire and perish might get government help in their last journey to the other world. At times help comes very late. So it is a usual sight of young men cleaning windscreens of the cars at the signal junctions and collecting money for the funeral of their dead friends or relatives.

One cannot help but noticing the predominant black neighbourhoods and victims in Ms.Davidson’s photographs which are done mostly in black and white. A question is raised by a young man in the audience. He says that he does not know the politics of this black representation but would like to know why only black victims. Ms.Davidson has a very convincing answer: The Whites don’t get caught in cross fires.’ The connotation is very clear and subtle. The gangsters operate in the black neighbourhood. It has a lot to do with poverty, power, masculinity, and top it all the affinity for crime that comes out of a long history of deprivation and growing up in violent climates. Right from the homes to streets, right from the social systems to education, from social representations to familial representations the black population has been violently weaned away by force and authorities. Gun culture and the gangster culture is not just the reflection of their beastly nature but it is an outcome of their history. Unless and until this history is reread and the future course of it is altered the situations are not going to change. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) claims that the gun culture has come down considerably but legal solutions always do not help, feels Ms.Davidson. (I could not stop thinking about Will Smith, Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker, Denzel Washington, Samuel Jackson, John Travolta, Jamie Fox films where they play LA Cops or villains). Ms.Davidson also says that the legal and penitentiary system in Los Angeles or in the US in general is abysmal, which gets a kindergarten ‘Ooooo’ from the audience which is surprisingly comprised of the brink generation- they cannot be more latest and irreverent, intellectual and casual than this.(I really feel old and out of place. I could not see a single recognizable photography artist in the audience...strange!)

Black and white is the favourite colour scheme of Ms.Davidson and she attributes this to her fine arts training in Concordia University. She finds black and white natural. She has a tendency to work on a theme for a long time and then take a break and she feels that taking photograph is not the real thing about a photojournalist’s life. It is all about finding, recognizing and realizing the stories that need to be heard by more people and if possible seen by a lot too. She says that her photographs are anthropological to certain extent though they are not anthropological in an academic sense. I have rarely come across photographers who talk about the news value of a story and then the visual value of a photograph. An artist by training, Ms.Davidson does not bat an eyelid when she says that she is primarily a journalist and then a photographer. She explains her working method which could sound a reverse process for many hardcore photographers. She finds her story first and then looks for the right picture. Most of the photographers these days take good pictures and develop a story around it. I am not here to judge photographers in general but people have different ways of making a good image.

Ms.Davidson is in India for a month, working with the Apne Aap organization for rehabilitating young girls reclaimed from sex traffickers’ hands. Based in Bihar’s Mithila/Madhubani region, Apne Aap has been working for the young girls who are pushed into prostitution by none other than their brothers and fathers. It is happening in a country where honour killings are regularly carried out in the name of religion, caste and above all the right over women’s body. The girls from a particular community have been the victim of this ‘family tradition’. Apne Aap is about reforming that society. Ms.Davidson works with them in her sojourn in India. She shows the photographs that she has taken there in the rehabilitation centre. I feel they need more involvement and a photojournalist like Ms.Davidson cannot do a sweeping job on them. India is a conflict zone and a camera trained to any person on the road is as good as focusing on a conflict victim, irrespective of age, gender and social position. They are the victims of social oppression if not that of the attitude developed by hegemonic ideologies. India is a country where the oppressor and oppressed are the victims of power, money and caste or in the reverse order of it. Ms.Davidson will find a treasure trove in this country. 

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