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L.A. Riots: Former L.A. Times Photojournalist Remembers Koreatown

Gracie Zheng |
April 29, 2012 | 11:47 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

This story is part of a special Neon Tommy series revisiting the upheaval 20 years ago surrounding the Rodney King trial. See more of our anniversary coverage here.


Hyungwon Kang was working for the L.A. Times when rioting broke out in the city. (Hyungwon Kang)
Hyungwon Kang was working for the L.A. Times when rioting broke out in the city. (Hyungwon Kang)
Hyungwon Kang, a Korean-American photojournalist, took powerful pictures in Koreatown during the riots while working for The Los Angeles Times. On the afternoon of April 29, he was on his way home from the office when the LAPD scanner in his company vehicle caught his attention: officers were congregating near Florence and Normandie to evacuate the intersection.

A few minutes later, Kang heard one of his fellow photographers was stranded near the intersection. Kang headed that way to come to his rescue, his car pelted with bricks and bottles on the way in and out. 

Kang covered the riots for three days and nights. He recently recounted the expierence in an interview with Neon Tommy. 

Neon Tommy: When you went out to cover the riots, were you scared?

Hyungwon Kang: I wasn't worried about being scared. I was worried about my safety. I took precautions not to get injured. But there were people who tried to attack me with baseball bats, chase me down and throw bricks at my car. I was lucky enough to survive all of those attacks. 

NT: What were the powerful moments for you?

HK: On the first night of the riots, there was a gentleman who was trying to fight a building fire with a bucket of water because the fire department couldn't respond to large fires. On the second night, there were a bunch of gunshots in Koreatown, which resulted in the death of one of the college students, named Eddie Lee, who along with his three buddies were shot at the intersection of 3rd Street and Hobart Boulevard while they were heading to a business that was asking for help guarding the shop against looters.  

NT: How did you get the shot of Eddie Lee?

HK: I was about three blocks away covering armed resistance formed in Koreatown to help protect the businesses. They were staying up all night guarding the supermarket. I was with them when I heard the gunshots. After a few minutes, there were a bunch of vehicles with bullet holes that came by and said there was a huge trouble. That's when I found out about that shooting. I went there and I found Eddie Lee was already dead and three others with gunshot wounds. Eddie Lee was already on the pavement. They had pulled him out of the car. He was on a pavement in the parking lot, just bleeding to death. 

NT: What was it like for you to cover Koreatown as a Korean-American photojournalist?

HK: It was just very sad and very dangerous. I was just trying to document what was going on. What was going on was not real. It was so surreal because there was no police presence when all these criminal activities were going on, when people were breaking into shops, stealing things, and torching businesses and buildings. 

NT: You recently revisited some of the people from your photos around the 20th anniversary—how did that feel?

HK: The riots ended 20 years ago, but the suffering still continues. People are still grieving the loss of their sons. They are still dealing with the pain that comes from gunshot wounds. Financially stricken families that could never rebuild their businesses are still suffering from the poor quality of life. 

NT: Why is photojournalism so important in covering social unrest?

HK: Subjective experiences, eyewitnesses and accounts change and sometimes get rewritten or relearned. But when photojournalists record the events as they happen, the content of that message and the content of what's going on become much more credible facts and documentation for future generations to understand what really happened. The visual storytelling is critical in establishing factual information about what's going on. 

NT: If you were to cover the riots today, what would you do differently?

HK: I would do it the same way. I'd cover whatever's going on accurately and fairly.


Reach Staff Reporter Gracie Zheng here; follow on Twitter.



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