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As a photographer, this year was daunting as many things remain uncertain

Throughout my life I have contemplated many things, but never have I contemplated my passion and drive for photography until this year.

Tensions flared in Los Angeles, California, on May 31, 2020, after the killing of George Floyd. A protestor throws a molotov towards LAPD officers on Fairfax Avenue. Pablo Unzueta.

 

It wasn’t until November when I began to fully digest all of the events that took place in 2020, including the ones that I participated in as a photographer.

 Specifically, on Nov. 7, when Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump, securing his nomination as the 46th President of the United States. I was headed out to Los Angeles to document the celebrations that were taking place in front of City Hall. 

 It had been raining earlier that morning and when the clouds eventually weakened, the sun illuminated the LA streets in this heavenly-like scene, as people danced to the off-rhythm chanting.

 I was overcome with a surreal set of emotions. Here I was, in this incredible moment documenting history unfold in real time. It brought an outpouring of reflection on how challenging this year was.

 

 Christopher Guardado, middle, holds a sign of his son, Andres Guardado, 18, who was fatally shot five times in the back by a South Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy on June 18, 2020. The incident immediately sparked protests in South L.A. People marched for justice in the South L.A. neighborhood on Sept. 27, 2020. Pablo Unzueta.

These set of emotions were building blocks to nearly seven years of being a photographer, and sometimes being on the front lines of dicey situations like earlier this year when I was arrested on Sept. 8, by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s  department while documenting the manifestations for Dijon Kizzee in South LA.

 I spent one cold night inside the Compton Sheriff station, where I was then transferred to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in the early hours the following day.

 With the pungent smell of tear gas residue and dry sweat hanging on my skin, I found myself wearing the LA County inmate uniform and staring at the mustard yellow wall in my cell. 

I was in jail for doing what I have been doing since I was 17 years old: being a photographer.

 

How did I get to this point?

 Since 2013, I have been a photographer having a keen passion for journalism. The first event I ever covered as a 17yearold was a demonstration for Trayvon Martin that occurred on July 14, 2013, in Crenshaw, California.

 

Amidst the looting and upheaval after George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, the California National Guard was deployed into Los Angeles, California, to quell the violence that erupted days before. California National Guard members stood by the protests in Hollywood, Calif., on June 2, 2020. Pablo Unzueta.

Martin was a 17-year-old Black youth who was fatally shot for looking “suspicious” while walking in a Florida suburb.

At first, I was compelled to continue to document and tell stories from the streets, hoping that these photographs would somehow help alter the course of injustice and police brutality. Though each passing year remained bleak for social change, I still carried on with my desires to document civil actions for justice.

 Within this seven-year span, I documented numerous actions, met incredible people with compelling stories, walked many miles through countless streets and carried that same seeded optimism for change.

George Floyd protests in Hollywood, California, on June 2, 2020. Pablo Unzueta.

It wasn’t until I was arrested from the sidewalk by fully armed Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officers when my confidence as a photographer took a huge hit.

 In the process of my arrest, LASD officers took my camera gear, handcuffed me and threw me into the back off the bed of a truck packed with other arrestees. I remember being piled on top of a woman who had a wounded hand from the impact of munitions, before being moved into the back of a seatless van with her.

 Julianna Lacoste was the wounded woman. During this painful moment I could see a pool of blood beginning to form from Lacoste’s hand. I thought about the countless instances of police brutality and those who have lost their lives while in the process.

 

A woman raises her fist behind the window of a building during a Black Lives Matter march in Hollywood, California, on June 2, 2020. Pablo Unzueta.

It was a situation that could have amounted to something a lot worse, like death, perhaps. I found myself handcuffed, attempting to keep my normal breathing pattern, as it was difficult to breath due to the mixture of sweat, tear gas and pepper-like substances.

 

Urban life in Los Angeles, California. This photograph is part of a long-term project about inequality and homelessness in downtown LA. A deceased animal on the side of the 10 freeway, on Nov. 16, 2016. Pablo Unzueta.

A couple of months went by before I was able to come to terms with the level of discourse that I found myself standing in between. I questioned my purpose and found it difficult to rationalize the worthiness of being a photographer who has been highly invested with this craft that brought fulfillment at one point in life.

 But I came too far to become susceptible to this oppression that is instilled upon journalists and photographers, specifically this year, as we have seen many cases similar to my experience.

 Although I contemplated leaving photography behind, my educational goals are what kept me rooted to the very beginnings of 2013, when I first picked up a camera.

 

There were moments of stillness this year. I moved to Long Beach to start a new life, while studying at Long Beach State. Here, the plants get some sun after moving into an apartment near Seventh Street and Daisy, on June 23, 2020. Pablo Unzueta

This year I also transferred from Mt. San Antonio College with an associate’s degree to Long Beach State, where I had the opportunity to challenge myself and become a contributor to the college’s newspaper.

 Despite the stressful circumstances that other students and I endured this semester, it was the ability to continue to get an education that kept me aligned with my goals.

 During this pandemic, I have found ways to look for the quieter moments here in my apartment. One of the challenges going into the new year is finding the space to heal and reflect on the emotional journey of the past 12 months 

This year was harsh. But as we inch closer to its end, I must say it was an incredible time to be experiencing it as a photographer. 

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