- Posted By: Francine Orr
- Posted On: 5:15 p.m. | April 28, 2012
They called us together and told us they were “locking down” the school. The city was burning around us. They were going to try to keep us safe. We were in Koreatown, and it was April 29, 1992.
I had moved from Colorado that year with a backpack and a one-way ticket on a Greyhound bus. I was just back from the Peace Corps, and had returned to Colorado in winter. Unaccustomed to winter after living in the tropics, I headed west to Los Angeles.
I wanted to be a photojournalist, but I had a student loan to pay. Thanks to the help of friends, I got a weekday job teaching English as a second language in Koreatown. And Walt Mancini, then photo editor of the Pasadena Star-News, took me on as an unpaid photo intern on weekends.
At midday, between my split shifts, I drove around listening to the radio. I heard reports of the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King. It was quiet, so I went back to my classroom.
As I learned of the riots I tried to go outside, but the faculty would not allow me to go. “You don’t understand — I am a photographer, I have to go take photographs,” I argued. “You don’t understand — if you go outside you may get killed,” they replied.
I called my cousin, whom I was living with, and asked for reports. I asked her to tell me which areas were affected most – “So I know which areas to avoid,” I explained. She saw through my ruse: I wanted directions to the hot spots. She hung up.
I didn’t know Los Angeles. I knew how to get to my school from South Pasadena. That’s about all.
A teacher said he would allow me to follow him around the city. Then I could make my way back to Pasadena. The deal he insisted on was: If something happened to me, if my car was stopped, he was not going to help me. I agreed. They let me out of the school.
I drove directly to the Pasadena Star-News. Paul Morse, then a staff photographer, was running to his car. I yelled out, “Where are you going; I am coming with you.” He took one look at me and said, “Not dressed the way you are.”
I was wearing a white dress with blue dots, and blue shoes — one of my teacher dresses. But I had a change of clothing and my camera. I jumped in his car along with Nancy Newman, another staff photographer. Paul drove, with Nancy in the front passenger seat. I changed my clothes in the back seat.
Nancy instructed me to stay close. We drove south on Broadway. I had never seen anything like it. Fires, looting, anarchy. We were trying to shoot photos from the car. Paul insisted we stay inside. I was trying to get my flash to fire. It worked the day before and the day after — but not that night.
I didn’t see the man with the gun that came up to Nancy’s window. I was focused on my malfunctioning flash. She told Paul: “Drive, drive, drive.”
We barreled through the chaos. I started counting the gunshots. That’s one shot. That’s two. That’s three. Paul drove us back to the Star-News.
Over the next several days I drove around by myself, mostly focused on the downtown areas east of Koreatown and South Los Angeles. I documented street scenes, firefighters, burned-out buildings, the National Guard. My family was furious at me. They were calling from Colorado. I was out taking photos. I didn’t know they were calling my cousin in South Pasadena.
Days later the school reopened. Most of my students were Latino and Korean. Suddenly we had something we really needed to talk about.
I started visiting their homes and families to take photographs. Many lived in the Koreatown area and South Los Angeles. I saw good, hard-working families, well manicured lawns. Images that ran counter to those that dominated the riot coverage. Images that were not what I saw in movies and television depictions of minority communities. My students had become my teachers.
My first photographs published in the Los Angeles Times were taken in Koreatown after the riots. I was looking for a positive story and found a mural artist. Rosemary Kaul, then a staff photographer with the Los Angeles Times, published a short photo essay on the artist in City Times, one of the Times community editions.
Rosemary gave me an assignment about a woman that had lost her business. The woman stood in front of me and cried. I was a new photographer — I waited for her to stop crying and then took her photograph. When I came back to the office and shared the story with Rosemary, she was angry.
She told me if I were going to be a photojournalist I was going to see people suffering. There may be times when I would want to turn away. She said go ahead and cry if I must, but take the damn photograph.
This week was filled with serendipity.
Hyungwon Kang, 49, a former staff photographer for The Times, covered the riots in Koreatown for The Times in 1992. Now a senior picture editor for Thomson Reuters, Kang returned to Koreatown this week to work on a story about the 20th anniversary of the riots. I rode along.
Video: Revisiting the wounds: Koreatown 20 years after the L.A. riots
He stopped at a place where he recalled people had been shot. It was a few blocks from my old school. I met a man who organized the volunteers to protect the Korean radio station, the gas stations and the local shops. He is a hero in the Korean community.
I was there when Kang found the parents of Eddie Lee, a young Korean American killed during the riots as he tried to protect shops. Kang had heard the gunshots that day. He had stayed in touch with the family.
I watched him sit beside Eddie’s parents, next to his grave. I saw a weight on Kang’s shoulders at that gravesite.
I witnessed a journalist working hard, focused, and still caring. I witnessed him walking along side of people still suffering.
The 20th anniversary of the riots makes me contemplative about journalism, our community, about racism, about so many people who have been my teachers.
Since April 29, 1992, I have focused my camera on many injustices, locally and internationally. I have experienced racism. Following the riots, I was not served water or given a menu in a South Los Angeles restaurant. Years ago I was not allowed on the bus when I wanted to photograph the Million Woman March in Washington, D.C. I was punched in the face with a baton by an LAPD officer while covering a student rally at UCLA, because I was taking photographs.
I was recently at USC covering a rally in memory of Trayvon Martin. I put my hand out and a man refused to shake it.
Kang reminded me of something this past week. Being a photojournalist is a privilege and an obligation. People do not have to allow us in to tell their stories.
In many ways I continue to feel like that new intern 20 years ago. I mark the birth of my career as a photographer by that night the riots began. I still do not see enough coverage of minority communities in the media. Racism continues. I have seen an improvement in the LAPD. I don’t believe we are there yet as a community, media included.
At the conclusion of my interview with Kang, he stated: “We are all members of the community that we work in and you have to maintain reverence no matter how we differ with our perspectives. We have to accept that reasonable minds can differ but we have the responsibility to be cordial and respectful to one another throughout the process.
Thank you Hyungwon, for allowing me to ride along this week. It helped me refocus on the privilege and the obligation of photojournalism.
· Video: Revisiting the wounds: Koreatown 20 years after the L.A. riots
· Photos from the 1992 Los Angeles riots
· Scenes from the riots, then and now
· Timeline: 1992 L.A. riots
· The past still grips Rodney King
· Front pages from the riots
· Full coverage