Barbara Davidson: Visual Humanitarian


Shortly before turning 16 years old, Barbara Davidson recorded her desire to be a photographer in her high school yearbook. “I had never taken a photo at that point in my life, but that was a decision I had made,” she says.

At 18, an image from the first roll of film she ever shot was published in the McGill Daily, an independent student newspaper from Montreal’s McGill University. Davidson says, “The direct connection from making pictures to being published really resonated with me, and it was from then on that I really wanted to pursue photojournalism.”

Family History in Pictures

Raised in Canada by Irish immigrants, Davidson and her six siblings were steeped in the power of photography from an early age. “My grandfather was also a photographer—a very active hobbyist—and when my parents emigrated to Canada they took little bundles of their family photographs that my grandfather had made with them,” she explains. “It was essentially how I learned about my extended family, and it gave me a direct connection to who I was. Probably on some subliminal level, I connected with the sensibility that photography was important, and it influenced who I would become later in my life.”

All photographs © Barbara Davidson unless otherwise noted

Davidson’s parent’s wave from the tarmac upon their departure from Ireland.

From the start, Davidson was smitten by all aspects of the photographic process. “I loved taking the photo, going to the darkroom, making the print, seeing it play out in the newspaper, and seeing my photo credit,” she says. “The dots were all connected at that point, and I knew it was something that I wanted to do. So, I just continued to work at the McGill Daily.”

At the time, there were no photojournalism programs in Canada, so Davidson studied fine art photography at Montreal’s Concordia University, receiving a BFA in photography and film studies, in 1990. She notes, “Essentially, I worked at University newspapers, in order to hone my craft.”

In this secluded atmosphere, there were hardly any female photographers she could turn to as role models. Initially, she found inspiration from afar in notable women photographers, such as Diane Arbus and Margaret Bourke-White.

From Aide Worker to Visual Humanitarian

After college, Davidson received an internship at the Waterloo Region Record, a small-town newspaper in Southern Ontario. “When I was there I would volunteer a lot with the local Red Cross, helping them with different campaigns, and to get the word out about what they were doing,” Davidson explains. “I was so active that I was called upon to be trained as a Canadian Red Cross worker.”

Mother and child, from Davidson’s coverage of the drought in Africa. Barbara Davidson/The Los Angeles Times

This was quite a prestigious honor, since the organization selected very few trainees per year. Before long, she decided to take a leave of absence from her newspaper job to cover work the Red Cross was doing in Bosnia at the end of the Bosnian conflict. Although she had yearned to gain experience as a conflict photographer, Davidson and her Croatian driver were detained in the city of Vukovar and held captive by a Serbian paramilitary outfit at the end of her month-long trip. After two harrowing days of interrogation, the Red Cross intervened to arrange for their release. “It was a terrifying experience,” she says. “And after I got out of it, I had decided that I wasn’t going to do that kind of work anymore, because the glamour had sort of faded for me. I saw the ugly side of covering conflicts very early on, in the first conflict I had gone to.”

Nevertheless, Davidson was still driven to continue working as a photojournalist. Back in Canada, she applied for an open position at the Washington Times, moving to the United States as soon as she secured the job. “Part of the reason why I moved from Canada to the United States, was so that I could have access to more mentors,” she says. “I was able to have people on the ground who really helped me.”

At the Washington Times, Davidson was equally passionate about continuing her work with the Red Cross, and she approached her editor to ask if she could arrange for scheduled leaves to do this work. “He said to me, ‘Well Barbara, listen. You’re either a photojournalist or an aide worker; you can’t be both,’” Davidson recalls. “So naturally I chose to be the photojournalist, although from that moment forward my photography took on a humanitarian sensibility. So, I kind of incorporated the two.”

She describes this role as to always assist the most vulnerable people in society. “I took that sensibility into my photojournalism, to always cover the most vulnerable, whether it be victims of gang violence, or people caught in the crossfire of war overseas,” she explains. “I was always interested in the people impacted by violence, not the violence itself. So, I was always interested in the women, and children and the elderly—the most innocent in these environments—and I always wanted to tell their story. So, essentially, the theme of the aid worker became the theme for me as a photojournalist.”

Catharsis in the Congo

After three and a half years in Washington, D.C., Davidson moved to Texas for a position with the Dallas Morning News. Assigned by her editor to cover hidden wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, she suddenly had a crisis of confidence just before leaving the office.

“I said, ‘Look I never talk about this, but I want you to understand, I had a very bad experience in Bosnia, and I can’t do this. I can no longer do this kind of work,’” Davidson relates. “And he said to me, ‘Listen Barbara, just get on the plane and when you land on the tarmac, if you feel that it’s too terrifying for you to do, get back on, come home and there will be no consequences, you’ll have the ability to come back home and everything will be fine. I just want to give you the choice.’”

Once on the ground, she discovered that she could function—initially at least. Then, the reporter she was working with informed her they would be accompanying the rebels on a recruitment mission in the rural areas of Goma. Davidson responded, “No way, you can go, I’m not going.”

Davidson working in the field. At left, reviewing her pictures in Baghdad, and at right, clad in a burka in Afghanistan.

A long discussion ensued about Davidson’s traumatic experience in Bosnia and the reporter’s story about her husband’s return to the field after being shot covering the revolution in Romania. “You just got to get back at it,” the reporter said. Davidson countered with, “Look, I can do this kind of work again, but I have limitations now.” This prompted the reporter to conclude, “Fine, I have a camera, I’m a photographer, I’m going to take the pictures then.”

“It was at that moment where I knew I had no choice, I had to go. I couldn’t have the reporter take the pictures,” Davidson admits. “So, it was a freeing experience for me in many ways, in that I finally got back on the horse, and I could do it.”

Despite this turning point, Davidson still always carries the fear—and the knowledge—of what can happen into any conflict zone. “Sometimes you don’t know if it’s PTSD kicking in, or if it’s reality,” she says. “So, I have to do a lot of inside work when I’m in these zones to ensure that I can function well. I have to control that fear when I’m working in these zones, because I still feel very strongly about telling these stories.”

Pursuit of a Life Journey

In 2007, Davidson moved farther west for a job with the Los Angeles Times. It was there she found a story that became more than just a news assignment—a story that would deeply impact her life and her career as a long-term documentary project.

After repeated assignments to document scenes of gang violence in the Los Angeles community, Davidson proposed to her editors a comprehensive piece on this kind of violence and its long-term effect on families who were the innocent victims. The initial response she received was, “Gang violence isn’t news, it happens all the time.”

A family in mourning, from Davidson’s Caught in the Crossfire project. Barbara Davidson/The Los Angeles Times

Her resulting frustration with the violence that continued to play out in the city’s poorer regions, with little effort to curb it, helped to fuel a quest that would consume much of her time over the next three years. “I felt there was an injustice playing out, and I wanted to do something about it as a journalist,” explains Davidson. “I wanted to tell the stories of the unheard.”

With great effort, she gained trust inside the communities that were terrorized by gang violence, and established relationships with families whose loved ones were killed or wounded by stray bullets. “It took a long time to develop those relationships,” she says. “I introduced myself to the community, to the gang intervention leaders in the community, and I just kept on going back, and going back, and going back. And anytime somebody was shot, and we heard about it, I’d show up.”

Davidson, who had recently lost her own mother to cancer, felt a deep-seated empathy for the families’ sense of loss and despair. She notes, “I would channel the pain and suffering I was witnessing into my images, and the anger I felt about this injustice motivated me to continue to tell their stories.”

Her most essential concern, however, is her role, “to not be a dignity robber,” as she describes it. “A lot of the work that I do is social-issue based, so I’m with people when they’re in a very emotional place,” she notes. “I ride the emotional wave with them, in the sense that I try to get as connected to them emotionally as possible, but from behind my camera, and I look for the moments that really tell the story of how they’re feeling.”

Building Awareness about Gang Violence

As Davidson admits, “There’s a lot going on when I take pictures. There’s a lot of thought process that goes into what I’m doing. A lot of times the photography is reactive because you’re in a very fluid situation and you’re just moving very quickly,” she says. “But the pictures that really resonate with me are the ones where there’s some sort of emotional connection between me and the person I’m photographing.”

One aspect of Davidson’s process is the decision whether to convert her images to black-and-white. While all her original images are in color, “When I’m doing a story that is social-issue based, for the most part, I will convert to black-and-white, because I don’t get to choose the lighting situations I’m in, and how color is playing out in the image,” she explains. “When I’m working under varied lighting situations and looking for moment-based images, presenting the photos in black-and-white helps drive the viewer directly to the heart of the image.”

Davidson being presented with her 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Photography Courtesy of The Los Angeles Times

Davidson’s tremendous efforts in telling this story of gang violence was eventually rewarded by the Los Angeles Times, which devoted seven pages to her coverage over a three-day period, starting on the front page, and produced a 30-minute multimedia piece entitled “Caught in the Crossfire.” In 2011, this work was further honored with a Pulitzer Prize (her second, following a 2006 Pulitzer in Spot News Photography for team coverage of Hurricane Katrina for the Dallas Morning News). Davidson also received a 2011 News and Documentary Emmy award for the video piece.

“I’m proud of the Los Angeles Times for letting me do this story, because they took a big risk in letting me put so much energy into it,” says Davidson of the project. “Nobody had worked on a project about this issue of that scope before, which is why it had such an imprint.”

She mentions the emulation effect that can happen when the viral spread of a given story leads to increased attention to a topic, as a whole. “That’s one of the bonuses to winning contests,” she points out, “People emulate. People basically go on and tell this story in their own way. I’ve always said to people, ‘I hope you emulate this work,’” she adds. “‘I hope you copy this work, because this story can be told in any city of the United States of America, which is such a tragedy.’”

Less Is More

As a photojournalist, Davidson finds it beneficial to keep her gear to a minimum. “The kind of photojournalism that I do, less is better, because you want people to feel comfortable with you very early on,” she says. “I find when you’re decked out with three cameras, and you have a lot of lenses, it’s daunting for people, it makes people feel uncomfortable. So, I’m really low-key with gear, and I don’t have any gadgets.”

A Canon shooter for many years, and a member of the prestigious Canon Explorers of Light, Davidson’s current camera of choice is a Canon 5D Mark IV, with the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM, Canon EF 35 mm f/1.4L II USM or Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM as her go-to lenses. “I use prime lenses now, pretty much exclusively,” she points out. “I used to use zooms a lot more as a press photographer, but not anymore.”

Davidson notes that as a photojournalist today, “You’re not only shooting stills, you have to do video, as well, so I’m always shooting little video clips.” For quick-hit videos, she carries a kit with a GoPro HERO5 Black and a GoPro Karma Grip but, for more serious video, she always uses her 5D Mark IV, “because the quality of the video is super.”

A wrestler douses a red clay pit with water, from Davidson’s documentation of Indian Kushti, a traditional form of ancient wrestling. Barbara Davidson/The Los Angeles Times

For maximum versatility, she supplements her prime lenses with a Canon EF 24 – 70 mm f/2.8L II USM, or the Canon EF 100 – 400 f/4.5-5.6 L IS II USM zoom when shooting from a distance in a spot-news situation. “It’s super light, so I definitely always carry that with me, in case,” she says. “And I also have a Canon EF 70 – 200 f/2.8 L IS II USM in my camera bag, which sits in my trunk.”

To capture audio, she carries a Zoom H4N-Pro recorder and a RØDE VideoMic Pro shotgun mic.

Shaking Things Up

In 2017, Davidson made the difficult decision to leave the security of her job for a freelance career. “I had been at the Los Angeles Times for 10 years. I hadn’t worked anywhere that long, and I just kind of felt it was time to shake things up,” she says. “I felt like I wasn’t growing, and I thought, ‘is this it, is this the rest of my life? Am I just going to continue to roll and repeat assignments over and over again?’”

Another important consideration was the copyright to her images, since newspapers own the copyrights to all images created by members of its staff. “I certainly wanted to own the rights to my images. That was a big factor,” she notes.

The path to this monumental decision was full of anguish. “I went back and forth a lot, there were a lot of tears, a lot of sleepless nights,” Davidson admits, “but once I made the decision to make the leap, I promised myself that I would only focus on positive energy going forward. Otherwise, I would be my own worst enemy, and I needed myself to now become my best champion.”

Barbara Davidson, Self-Portrait

Yet, while still in the process of weighing her options, Davidson received an inquiry out of the blue, which eventually played a key role in her ability to leave the paper behind. Swedish auto manufacturer Volvo was seeking a leading photojournalist for an advertising campaign, and they contacted her about the assignment. She says, “One of the women who works at the advertising agency knew my work, and she said, ‘you really need to reach out to this Barbara Davidson, I like her work, we need to check it out.’”

Davidson went to her publisher about Volvo’s interest in her work, asking permission to do the campaign, which was refused. “So, I went home, and I emailed the agency saying, ‘Thanks so much, I’m not ready to leap into the freelance market yet, but I want you to know that when I was a kid, I was in a car accident, and I literally was in a Volvo, and it saved my life, so thank you very much and, adios, goodbye,’” she says. “I was resigned to the fact that I would continue as a photojournalist, and I’d plot my leave in a different fashion. And, sure enough, two days later they wrote me saying, ‘Listen, Volvo really wants to work with you now. This is so authentic, you survived a car accident in a Volvo, and this is a safety campaign, and you’re a photojournalist.’”

Frame grab made from the City Safety camera of a Volvo XC60, from Davidson’s VOLVO Moments campaign

Fueled by the enthusiasm, as well as by the advice of friends who saw this as an opportunity that might not happen again, Davidson reconsidered the situation. “I thought to myself, ‘OK, if I don’t do this, and I go back to what I was doing, how am I going to feel? Am I going to regret it?’ And I’m not someone who likes regret,” she adds.

So, she dug back in and negotiated hard, which ultimately allowed her to walk away from her staff position. “The opportunities that I’ve had since leaving the paper have really broadened how I see, broadened how I photograph,” she affirms. “It’s challenged me in every way possible.”

Using a Volvo as a Camera

In Davidson’s resulting multi-million-dollar VOLVO Moments campaign, she functioned as the lead creative, working with a precision driver, and using the built-in City Safety camera of a Volvo XC60, which shoots video, to capture street-photography situations. From writing the script to choosing the locations, to the outfits, to the lead models, to how the images would be crafted, Davidson was the Director on the set. “In addition to composing the images, I was insuring that the campaign went smoothly, as well,” she says.

Once the filming was complete, she curated an exhibition from the project for a gallery in London, which has since traveled to major venues in Italy, Spain, Russia, and beyond. “To make the photo exhibition, I had to edit the video and pull frame grabs for printing,” she explains. “The image files were very small at 1.3MB, but blown up, they had a dream-like quality, and I incorporated that sensibility into the concept of the piece.”

Installation view of the XC60 Moments exhibition, at London’s Canvas Studios

While this campaign was based in Europe, it had a viral spread, being covered by the New York Times, among many other news outlets. “It got a ton of press in North America, so we were all very pleased,” says Davidson. “And that’s what you want in your first assignment out of the gate, you want it to be successful, because it’s how you launch your new brand as a freelancer. I really wanted a challenge,” she adds, “so I took a leap, and I probably had the biggest challenge since the beginning of my career, in terms of the excitement, in terms of the creative process.”

Embracing Technology and Diversifying Income Streams

One unanticipated result of Davidson’s shift to a freelance career is her growing immersion in the technical aspect of photography. “I’m much more interested in gear now, and what that gear can do, because I’ve been forced to diversify,” she says. “That means that I have to punch out of my comfort zone in terms of technology, because we use different tools for different assignments.”

Indeed, this new chapter of her career is all about diversification. “I’m really diversifying where my sources of income come from,” she says. “I’m doing photojournalism, I’m doing commercial, I’m doing editorial, I do speaking engagements, I teach workshops. In some ways, it keeps things fresh, and it keeps things moving, and I really like that at this point in my life.”

These days, Davidson is busier than ever. She recently completed a massive advocacy journalism assignment for the Global Partnership, a group of NGOs seeking to end violence against children by the year 2030. For that project she traveled to Indonesia, Tanzania, Mexico, and Sweden to document causes of violence, as well as the solutions these countries are establishing to help empower children. Her resulting images were exhibited in Sweden during the organization’s first Global Summit, on February 18.

A young girl and her blind father living next to a garbage dump in Indonesia, from Davidson’s work for The Global Partnership

She is also preparing to revisit the work from “Caught in the Crossfire.” Davidson notes, “The Los Angeles Times has given me the rights to create a book, so I’m thinking of ways to go back to the families and to show how the children have aged, and to see what has happened to the families. We are certainly gearing up for this to be a powerful educational journey,” she adds. “Gang culture is deeply entrenched in the pop culture fabric of the United States, and it’s very glamorous, and very exotic, and attractive to these young kids. But my work is anti-gang violence. It certainly shows the ugly side of this, and what happens when your kid brother gets killed, so this is definitely an educational tool.”

In the short span of a year since going out on her own, Davidson has effectively reinvented herself. “I stretched myself into this baptism-by-fire situation so that I could fall back in love with photography, and feel inspired again, and feel like I was growing,” she muses. “And I certainly gave myself a tough challenge, because we all know how the industry is now. But I think it’s that exact challenge that I needed to thrive again. So, I think diversifying and being open minded are two keys to succeed in the world of photography nowadays.”

During a recent speaking engagement for the Northern Short Course, Davidson addressed photojournalists about the culture of fear, and its debilitating effects. “As photojournalists, we’ve lived under this cloud of fear for a very long time, as the business has changed,” she asserts. “I told them, you’ve got to get out from under those clouds, and believe in yourself and stay positive, and stay focused, and believe that you can do whatever you want to do. Because we have too many people telling us we can’t. We have to retrain our brains to say we can. That’s the logic that I’m living under, and it’s been very, very successful.”

Davidson speaks with host Mia McCormick during an interview for B&H’s Women of Influence documentary video series. B&H Photo Video Team

Last spring, Davidson was a featured artist in B&H’s Documentary Video Series Women of Influence.

To watch that interview, follow this link. To learn more about Barbara Davidson, click on the links below:

Caught in the Crossfire:

Have you diversified your photography from a photojournalism career? Please tell us about it in the Comments section, below.