Looking Back: The Aurora News Blog on 9/11

Crowd in Los Angeles clamors for news hours after the terror attacks of 9/11

Below is what I wrote for the Aurora Photos News Blog.

The phone rang, jarring my wife and I from our sleep. Dawn was just creeping under our bedroom shade, but the feeling of dread had already enveloped the room before I grabbed the handset. I had no idea why the phone was ringing, but I did know that the likelihood of the other person bearing good news was nearly nonexistent.

“Turn on the TV” my brother in Rhode Island hollered into the phone. “Quick!”

I hung up and scrambled across the house to turn on the television without waking our five-year-old son. The phone began to ring again. I managed to catch a glimpse of Tower One on fire while grabbing the handset fully expecting to hear my brother’s frantic voice again. But this time it was Martha Bardach, TIME magazine’s West Coast Photo Editor, asking that I get to downtown Los Angeles as soon as possible. No one knew where other attacks might occur, she said, but one rumor had it that a plane was heading for Los Angeles.

I made it to LA and began photographing as people assembled on the streets, talking on their cell phones, looking skyward with a sense of disbelief. The plane, thankfully, never materialized and people started to make their way home only hours after arriving for work. By this time it was being reported that the U.S. had been attacked by terrorists, yet LA had not directly been hit. I ventured across the city to the Federal Building near UCLA and found that the FBI were guarding the facility with assault rifles while listening intently to earpieces. At a nearby newsstand, a growing number of people were gathering. I stopped and began photographing as Angelenos (or were we all Americans at that point, I remember wondering), desperate for news and information, scrambled for position and thrust their money at the clerk in attempts to claim a copy of the LA Time’s extra edition published only hours after the terrorist attacks. “TERROR ATTACK” screamed the headline.

Hours later, I was sent by TIME to document citizens lining up at a Red Cross facility to donate blood for the victims and then onto a large, non denominational prayer service where tears flowed, heads bowed and prayers went out to victims and their families.

I then drove home to my wife and son who were safe and healthy. I cried along with my wife that night, knowing that the world had changed fifteen hours earlier when I reached for the phone.

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One Hour with John Wooden

When you meet a legend, you don’t expect him to answer the door.

When you meet John Wooden, he’ll apologize for not having answered the door quicker.

When you meet a legend, you don’t expect to be greeted like a truly important person.

When you meet John Wooden, you discover he’s as interested in you as you are in him.

When you meet a legend, you don’t expect to find he lives in a small, unpretentious town house in the “Valley.”

When you meet John Wooden, you discover his home feels like your home, warm and comfortable.

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden

I only met John Wooden once, but it was one of the greatest hours in my life. I arrived to shoot a portrait of the legendary UCLA basketball coach at his home and left with the feeling that I had just learned more from listening and conversing with Mr. Wooden than at any other time in my life. His demeanor, speaking tone, genuineness and strong opinions on etiquette, sportsmanship and civility were embedded in me during that assignment.

Now, as I reflect on a man I pray will live for 20 more years (he’s 99), I am reminded of the book “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” The novel spins a tale about how one person can impact another person so deeply, even in a passing moment, that you will meet them again in heaven. I can assure you that Mr. Wooden would not remember our hour together years ago, but I can assure him that he will be one of the five people I meet in heaven.

That’s the impact that John Wooden, small in stature but enormous in life, had on me.

NOTE: Moments after posting this Mr Wooden passed away. His life was lived in full and may he find the eternal happiness he so deserves)

Fear and Loathing

Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Los Angeles on May 1, 2010 to protest against the new Arizona law, SB 1070, that forces immigrants to carry papers.

I have had a couple of assignments in the past week that revolve around hate. Combined with the attempted car bombing in NY and the unabashedly strict new immigration law in Arizona, it makes me wonder how so much animosity can be so pervasive. Where does it all come from? Is it human nature to despise that which we don’t understand, those who are unlike us? Has extremism gone mainstream?

I was in San Francisco last week to photograph a young man named Jamie Nabozny. Jaime is the kind of person who anyone could hang around. A man with a kind demeanor who heralds from Wisconsin and works in corporate America. But I wasn’t there to photograph Jamie because he’s a nice, middle class, typical American male. I was there because a documentary is being made about hate and Jamie is at the core of it. Seems this mild mannered man had anything but a mild mannered adolescence. Realizing he was gay at an early age, Jamie encountered hate growing up that had San Francisco high school students gasping in disbelief during an assembly. Beyond the taunting and name calling, Jamie was regularly assaulted and even urinated on but found little or no support from his school teachers and administrators. After moving around to different schools and hoping to simply be left alone, Jamie resorted to multiple suicide attempts. Thankfully, he eventually found an administration at another new school that would not tolerate the hateful actions and crimes committed on Jamie. He now spreads the word to high schools with the hope that he can teach tolerance to the intolerant, to appeal to the people who would rather spread hate than understanding. His story brought tears to many a hardened high schooler in the crowd.

I flew home on Friday and ended up shooting the large immigration protest in Los Angeles the next day. With the state of Arizona leading the way in immigration reform, albeit in a hateful and remarkably stupid way that will create difficulties for Arizona police and citizens alike, tens of thousands of protestors gathered near City Hall to be heard. Black, brown, white, Asian, it didn’t matter. The multiethnic crowd wanted to be heard that hate toward the undocumented would not be tolerated. Too often when economic times are challenging and crimes are committed, people choose hate over dialogue, turning to scapegoating as opposed to working for a meaningful solution. And once again, as it has before especially during the 90’s with California’s Prop 187, hate rears it’s ugly head and the undocumented are singled out as the reason for society’s ills.

Immigration reform is no doubt necessary. Even the horde of demonstrators acknowledge that. But reform has to come with the acceptance of divergent opinions and the denouncement of hyperbole and propaganda disguised as facts. For example, again the people of this country are led to believe that the undocumented take more from social services than they give, thus depriving the taxpayer of needed services. It’s simply not true, but it’s used by those that spread hate as fact and indisputable despite reports to the contrary. As a NY Times article clearly pointed out, the strict standards in place to employ anyone, including immigrants, includes a demand for social security numbers by all employees. The undocumented, of course, purchase fake social security cards and papers to gain employment. The employers take the social security taxes out of the immigrant’s paycheck and send them to the federal government. But since those numbers are fake, that money is placed in a account for the government to use. The immigrant never sees a dime of it.

Seeking answers should always include a heavy dose of tolerance.

A Freelancer’s Perspective

There is an interesting story (here) about how the economy has fostered a growth in the world of freelancing. This is not specific to photography by any means, but details how companies are apt to rely on freelancers to save the cost associated with employing someone. This is hardly a surprise and one that I think most economists would have predicted. I personally feel it’s a shift that will stay as more and more companies keep payroll at a minimum and depend more on outsourcing when the need arises.

But is freelancing all that bad? Are the costs of running your own business or being a sole proprietor a heavier burden than the freedom gained from freelancing?

I’ve freelanced for twenty years now, so I feel I have a fairly good perspective on the pros and cons. And there are definitely both.

Looking at the positive, I can say without a doubt that with proper care, a freelancer can gain more economic security than an employee. That runs counter to what most people think, particularly those who have worked for others all of their lives. By diversifying your clientele, in my case deriving income from various magazines, non profits, corporations and teaching, the freelancer can weather the downturn from a particular client or clients. By contrast, an employee relies solely on the one company for income and is usually impacted much harder if that one company folds or issues layoffs. Hence, less security for the employee. Another positive, noted in the story referenced above, is the creative freedom to develop your business in the manner the freelancer desires as opposed to the manner which the employer demands. There are many other positives, but those two are at the top of the list, together with things like shorter commutes (in my case,  a stroll down my hallway to my office).

Realistically, however, there are cons as well. And the cons are what most new freelancers encounter quickly. No more employee provided health care, paid vacation or sick days, lack of company matching 401k programs or pensions. Another factor seldom considered (until a accountant points it out) is the freelancer is liable for all of the Social Security tax. Whereas an employer typically pays 7.5% and the employee pays 7.5%, as a freelancer you are on the books for the entire 15%. Keep in mind also that a freelancer also has to quickly assume the role of bookkeeper, contract negotiator, expense manager and many other responsibilities previously taken on by the employer. And don’t forget that a freelancer is always on call, so don’t even think about turning that Blackberry or iPhone off!

The transition from employee to freelancer can be tough, especially in this economy where health care costs can devour any profit a freelancer might see. But it can be a rewarding experience as well. Like any transition in life, it will take extreme dedication, a bit of luck and the willingness to work long hours to develop a steady flow of work. Once a freelancer has substantiated his or her business, I think the poll would indicate it’s a superior lifestyle to that of employee.

Open for comments!

Health Care Reality

There is no sense at this point in debating the merits of the Health Care Reform bill. It’s a done deal, thankfully. Unfortunately, like everything else, politics always plays a major role. It’s more important to many of our representatives to vote in a manner that is less controversial, therefore maintaining a likelihood of reelection, than to vote for what they know is a needed change. As many experts pointed out from the beginning, provisions that Republicans vehemently fought to keep out are the same provisions taken from the health plan that each member of congress has. Keeping politics out of major legislation is like seeing a Republican in a inner city health clinic. It’s simply not going to happen………

The crowded waiting room at the South Central Family Health Center in Los Angeles, CA as patients wait for medical care.

I’ve spent time shooting some stories on community based health centers and on overcrowded emergency rooms. I’ve been inside and seen the overflow crowds waiting patiently to see a doctor or practitioner. They come with children and aging parents, lining up before the doors open and sitting for hours. The vast majority are uninsured, I’m told. They don’t pay for the services, but the cost is passed onto the taxpayers. This system has been broken for decades, if not longer. So the HCR legislation, though not perfect by anyone’s account, is the first step in a concentrated effort to fix things. Let’s take one step at a time and accept that change will occur over time. Just like during the Civil Rights movement (which a mere 50 yrs ago was at the center of “controversial” legislation like HCR), let’s not be scared off by the right’s vitriolic attacks on reform.

Protesting in Support of Iranian Demonstrators

My closest friends are from Iran. I consider them my brothers and they treat me like family. They’ve told me their tales of escaping a country after the revolution and finding their way to America and freedom. Each is a successful, humble, respectful and loyal person. And each still has family in Iran. Even though they were all tied up with personal commitments on Saturday, I headed down to the Federal Building in Westwood to photograph the protest by Iranian Americans in support of their fellow Iranians at home battling for freedom.

I’ve photographed for too many years and know the perils of actually participating in a protest as opposed to documenting it as a photojournalist. The line between photojournalist and protester is an important one. Although I was there to document, my love and respect for my friends (who weren’t there) made it a more personal experience than most other demonstrations I’ve covered.

Protesters gather in support of those in Iran who are battling government forces over disputed election results. A thousand demonstrators gathered at the Westwood Federal Building in Los Angeles.

Protesters gather in support of those in Iran who are battling government forces over disputed election results. A thousand demonstrators gathered at the Westwood Federal Building in Los Angeles.

A protestor holds a photo supposedly showing a woman named "Neda" who was killed Saturday in Iran.

A protestor holds a photo allegedly of "Neda" who was shot and killed Saturday in Iran.

The demonstrators were passionate and peaceful, yet they exhibited a energy that seemed destined to find it’s way to the men and women defying threats at home to battle government forces in ways that haven’t been seen in nearly thirty years (or so I’ve been told). There were older Iranians standing next to teens twittering on their iPhones, women leading chants with megaphones and children with signs they made themselves. Everyone was draped in green, signs depicted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a criminal and photos from the protests in Iran showing spilled blood circulated widely.

Protesters gather in support of those in Iran who are battling government forces over disputed election results.

Protesters gather in support of those in Iran who are battling government forces over disputed election results.

Time will tell if the protests both in Iran and worldwide will have an impact, but if Saturday was any indication, the support from the Los Angeles Iranian American community is not likely to subside anytime soon.

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Protesters gather in support of those in Iran who are battling government forces over disputed election results.

Protesters gather in support of those in Iran who are battling government forces over disputed election results.