Los Angeles Times photojournalist Barbara Davidson doesn't know exactly what inspired her to become a photojournalist, but she decided it was what she wanted to do when she was 15 years old, before she ever took a photo.
"I guess it was just a calling," she said.
Now, a couple of decades and Pulitzer Prizes later, the issue-driven photojournalist will add another prestigious award to her shelf when she receives the Frank McCulloch Award for Courage in Journalism from the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno this Thursday.
Davidson's "Caught in the Crossfire" series for the Times in December 2010 earned her the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography last year. The series, as well as a 30-minute Emmy-winning documentary she made, chronicled those cut down by street violence. Davidson spent nearly two years in communities such as South Los Angeles, Compton and Watts, getting to know the residents for months before ever taking out her camera. She attended celebrations and birthday parties, as well as hospital beds and funerals.
"I spent a lot of time with these families and I'm still friends with them," Davidson said last week in an interview with the University. "Their story has resonated with me the most and stayed with me the longest. It's in my own backyard."
Yet, Davidson said all of her work across the globe, seeking out humanitarian crisis and social issues that she believes are underreported by the popular media, touch and inspire her.
"I see myself as a visual humanitarian, and I'm drawn to covering the most vulnerable in our society," she said.
Davidson won another Pulitzer Prize in 2006 with seven fellow staff members for their work depicting the tragic conditions in New Orleans and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She also documented the tsunami disaster in 2004 and the Sichuan earthquake in China in 2008. She has captured the human toll of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Gaza, Bosnia and the Congo, and has also reported events in Yemen, Nigeria and Rwanda.
Before starting at the Times seven years ago, Davidson spent seven years at The Dallas Morning News. A 1990 graduate of Concordia University in photography and film studies, she began her career working for The Record in Ontario before moving to Washington D.C. to work for The Washington Times for three years. Davidson was surprised and touched upon learning that she was chosen as this year's Frank McCulloch Award for Courage in Journalism recipient.
"That's awesome, I'm a little embarrassed really," she said. "But, winning any award for work that is this important to our society is a wonderful honor. Awards like this draw more attention to the issue of gang violence in our country, and that was always my goal. Anytime the work is recognized or acknowledged, it brings more awareness of the work and the issue. And, the better we will all be for it."
The Frank McCulloch Award for Courage in Journalism is named for the 1941 University of Nevada, Reno graduate Frank McCulloch, who went on to be the top news executive of Time Inc., the Los Angeles Times, the McClatchy newspapers and The San Francisco Examiner. McCulloch launched his career as editor of the campus newspaper, the Nevada Sagebrush and is known for his work as one of most talented war reporters, photographers and editors, partly for the work he directed in Saigon 1964-67 as bureau chief for Time-Life News Service. The Frank McCulloch Award for Courage in Journalism was endowed by gifts from McCulloch, his family and friends, and the McClatchy Company Foundation.
The annual award was presented for the first time last year, when David Rohde, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, received the award for his reporting in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he was held captive by the Taliban for more than seven months before escaping, and for his reporting on the Srebrenica massacre, where thousands of Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina were slaughtered.
"Last year's award presentation inspired students in ways I've not seen here before," said Reynolds School Acting Dean Donica Mensing. "This award gives them the opportunity to hear directly from accomplished journalists who are walking the talk, who are sacrificing much to live their ideals. Journalists like Barbara Davidson remind us that serving the public is a high calling. And we can't ever lose sight of this underlying moral premise to our work."
The Reynolds School of Journalism boasts six Pulitzer-Prize winning journalists of its own, and its graduating seniors sign a professional ethics pledge each year, an effort initiated by students in 2008. It reads, in part, "I will uphold and apply the highest standards of integrity and ethics. This includes helping others by minimizing harm and showing compassion...I will act independently and be accountable for my actions."
"Barbara's empathy, humility and courage represent the absolute best of journalism," Mensing said. "That's exactly what we work to inspire here at the Reynolds School. We're honored to bestow Barbara with our McCulloch Award and thrilled that she will visit with our students on campus this week."
The award presentation is at 3 p.m., Thursday, March 29 at the University's Joe Crowley Student Union Theatre. It is free and open to the public.