How does this feel? It feels, I imagine, like a warm and welcome reunion for Sandra Plunkett, who stood and reported for us nearly fifty years ago as staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times — hey, I know, not that long ago. For the next six weeks, that’s what the Times is doing, through our Digital Immersion program: bringing back the great photographers of the area as they relive their experiences through photos and videos of landmark events and public gatherings. There was the Indio Rodeo at the heart of the nascent motor sports industry, the all-black football team at Central High, a parade of protest in 1965 against the American government’s support of the war in Vietnam, a festival of civil rights in the late 1960s, and the riots that marked the end of the decade. Our interns will have these stories and then offer new perspectives to the presentation online, on the Times site, and in our magazines. It’s an opportunity for journalists to dig further into that past — to reconnect with our news archive — and to ask the questions that ever get into their heads, any old time. It’s also the perfect chance to catch up with those who were important in the newspaper’s history: the Chronicle photographer who, in the early 1960s, snapped a dramatic picture of a new student on campus who dons a pear-shaped haircut and a short suit jacket and stands in a doorway with guns casually stacked in his hands, facing out at a group of white men. There’s the Chicago Tribune photographer who took an iconic shot of an old street preacher still smoking a cigar, and a We Love L.A. reporter by the name of Fred Martinez who arrived on the scene of the Watts riot and drew a picture of a young man standing waist deep in the molten rubble along with an older white woman, clutching a bottle of water.
Let’s face it, there have been countless photojournalists who have stood in for this kind of experiment. What I think we’ve taken to heart is that this isn’t news. It’s a matter of fact. It’s already in our archive. And now it’s bringing together a variety of, yes, great photographers, who have done their work here. In and around the bus loads of interns who came to our photo studios and will be joining us for sessions that start with all the action at the Hastings Library shooting in Santa Monica in 1971. It’s telling that this experiment is important to so many photographers: Pulitzer Prize winner Janet Maslin, whose series for the Times in the 1970s chronicled the violence in Watts, and Felix Sanchez who, during the 50th anniversary of the Watts riots, organized a memorial shooting star ceremony for many of the neighborhood’s most famous residents. And then there’s Susan Powell, whose coverage of the Independent Gay Pride Parade, fifty years ago this year, has become, I imagine, more famous than the event itself. (Which made some other photographers unhappy.)
The fact that we have this dual release — a virtual experience and a physical, interactive one — means that we’re making this topic universal: It’s what all photojournalists have been doing for hundreds of years. We’re bringing them together with experienced journalists who are fresh off of their desks and onto the streets, in this case to relive the precise moments in recent history that made for a great photograph. That’s our goal: That audiences think in the moment, and then tap, and kind of spell-bind, and simply stick with a story they’ve never heard before, and the image that came out of it. Then, maybe, they’ll go and read the link back to our website. And if someone wants to listen again to the audio version of the story that I’ve already done, that’s a good thing too. Just because it’s a great visual essay, that doesn’t mean it’s boring. I believe it’s journalism, full stop.
Ralph J. Roberts, The Times’ former executive editor, contributed this story.
Sandra Plunkett’s Run-In book in full, with interactive elements
The Times’s journey with former staff photographer Sandra Plunkett
Books about The Times: ‘We Did Not Do This Alone’ and more
All the times about the Guardian that I did not want to read