On the frontlines

Barbara Davidson

Los Angeles Times photojournalist Barbara Davidson has two Pulitzer Prizes under her belt, and an impressive collection of war stories from around the world. From her coverage of Hurricane Katrina to wars in the Middle East, if there’s conflict, Davidson is most likely photographing it. Last week, the Reynolds School of Journalism awarded Davidson the Frank McCulloch Courage in Journalism Award, named for a UNR grad and Pulitzer laureate.

Can you tell me about the projects for which you earned your Pulitzer awards?

The first one, there was a group of us photographers at the Dallas Morning News, and we won in the spot news division for our coverage of the Katrina disaster. We were all fully immersed there for a long period of time. And then the second one, I won the feature photo Pulitzer for my work on “Caught in the Crossfire” [a photo essay], which is about how gang violence has affected the innocent victims, whose lives are changed forever by that violence. I shot the whole piece in Los Angeles. I wanted to do a piece closer to home where I could keep on going back to the story. … [I’ve lived in] Los Angeles for five years. I moved there from Dallas … to work at the Times. I’m Canadian, and I’ve worked in the states for 15 years.

Where did you study, and how did you know you wanted to be a photojournalist?

I graduated from Concordia University in Montreal. I also attended McGill University when I was there. And it’s funny, people ask me that, and it’s weird. At the age of 15, I decided I was going to be a photographer. I don’t know why. Before I’d even taken a picture. And then ironically, the first photo I had ever taken with a roll of 35mm film was published in the student newspaper at the age of 18. So it was sort of destiny.

What has been the most challenging country to work in?

I think each country is unique, like Afghanistan. Each country differs depending on the situation at the time, and the first time I went to Afghanistan was in 2002, so there was really no infrastructure there. So the physical demands of covering stories like that are very difficult. You’re not eating regularly, you’re not sleeping regularly, you’re hiking a lot. So Afghanistan, Iraq, these are very rugged assignments in terms of your own safety. And 90 percent of the time you’re negotiating logistics in foreign countries. Only really 10 percent of your time is spent taking pictures.

What’s your favorite place you’ve traveled to?

I loved Yemen. Yemen is an incredibly beautiful country. I really like Afghanistan. You know, they are so exotic, these countries. They are kind of trapped in a different timeline than us. They feel medieval in many ways. I’ve gotten to travel all over the world because of my job and on the company dime, which is phenomenal. And Africa, too, there’s so many incredible places that I’ve gotten to travel to. I mean I’m never there for tourist reasons, I’m always there when there’s danger, but there’s a lot of beauty there.

Have you been in many dangerous situations?

Sure. There’s lots of times where you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you know, war breaks out. There’s firing. Bombings. I was detained in Bosnia. It’s really dangerous in this line of work. I don’t plan to go back to Afghanistan or Iraq anymore. I’ve been to Afghanistan five times, and Iraq three times. I’ve also covered conflict in Gaza a lot. I’ve been to Israel about seven times. It’s just surreal when you’re over there. I was on the frontlines with soldiers in Iraq, and we were shelled several times on that base. … [The soldiers] used to ask us if we got danger pay. And we don’t, and the soldiers gave us a lot of respect for that.

Davidson’s “Caught in the Crossfire” can be seen at http://tinyurl.com/3poqkks