L.A. Riots: Photographer Ted Soqui Remembers Covering The Unrest
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.
Ted Soqui covered the riots for LA Weekly. His photos of the destruction are among the most iconic from the event. This week’s issue of LA Weekly features a cover story in which Soqui and a fellow reporter return to the scene of the violence that rocked South Los Angeles, creating dramatic before-and-after imagery.
Neon Tommy spoke with Soqui about covering the riots and returning to that harrowing part of history.
Neon Tommy: What was it like revisiting these areas and shooting the before-and-after?
Ted Soqui: Shooting most of this stuff again was tough because, in '92, I was shooting very quickly, on the fly and under duress. I wasn't able to take a lot of notes on the areas. A lot of them weren't easy to find. I had to do some of my own forensics, looking through the rolls of film to figure out where I was and where I was headed, using a magnifying glass and using Google Street View. Some of the streets aren't there anymore. It was a lot tougher than I thought.
Living in L.A., I drive by these areas all the time, so it's not like I'm exactly revisiting them. But it really hits you when you put them side-by-side with the original image.
But the whole area, in some cases, was completely changed. There'd be a giant structure where there wasn't before, and it wouldn't give you a sense of what it was like back then. A lot of the after shots had to tell a story. In one case, the before shot was a mini-mall that had burned down. They didn't rebuild the mini-mall. There's a giant Lowes super store there now. I had to kind of hunt for an image.
I've seen a lot of before-and-afters that are exact recreations, but they don't give you a sense of before and after. With this, I wanted to tell a story, which made it a little tougher. It meant going out there three or four times a day on different days to get the right image and waiting for a person to walk by.
NT: One of the more striking images is the one with the police cruiser upside down and on fire. Can you tell me how you got that shot?
TS: When I first got the calls about the rioting, the first location I went to was Parker Center, because I’d heard that was where there were a lot of protests and people surrounding the police headquarters. But I didn't realize the city was blowing up with wildfire violence. We didn't have a lot of information. The Internet wasn't in play. Even if you were following police radio, you weren't getting a ton of information.
So, when I got there, I thought, "Maybe I should park next to this police car, 'cause that'll be safe." Not a good idea.
I got out and started taking photos. Things started going crazy. People started challenging the police. It got out of hand. It turned into a full-blown riot right there, and I thought, "I need to get out of here. This is not safe."
All of a sudden this cop car next to me is getting overturned. People were throwing rocks on it. Then they set it on fire. And every car next to it was being rocked. As I'm looking on at the police car on fire, I hear gunshots. It turned out the ammo in the police car had caught fire and started exploding. That stopped the rioters from turning over my car. They split immediately. I jumped in my car and took off, going the wrong way down the street.
NT: I read somewhere you were shooting through a hole in a brown paper bag to get some of these images.
TS: When we used to shoot film, they had a camera that was popular among photojournalists called the Nikon F. It was the workhorse, the simplest camera you could buy. It was basically bulletproof. I had three of them. I didn't want my good cameras to get hurt during the riots, and I'd heard photographers and journalists were getting beaten and robbed for their gear. I figured I could get robbed for this camera and not feel too bad about it.
With these cameras you could pop off the viewfinder from the top and shoot from the waist level. Well, when you take a picture from your waist, it doesn't look like you're engaged with the camera. So I got the bright idea to cover it with a paper bag with a hole in it while I'm doing that. I used that technique when things got really hairy. Of course, I was sweating bullets because, still, you're looking down at this bag, and you've got to time it so you can move your hand off the lens to take a photo. A lot of the time I was taking photos of my fingers.
It was hard. You had to be really careful, 'cause if the rioters saw that, you could be in trouble.
NT: Why was photography so important to the coverage of the riots?
TS: We were really the boots on the ground. A lot of people were scared of covering what was happening. Even news photographers.
We were using the simplest technique of finding the news, which was, basically, following the smoke. There were all these giant columns of smoke throughout the city. And you knew that wherever that smoke was, there was going to be a story. We drove around with a reporter from the Weekly and a fellow photographer, finding those columns of smoke to shoot from there. That smoke was our Twitter feed.
NT: Where did the media fall down in the coverage?
TS: I think they did a pretty good job. If anyone feel down, it was the LAPD and possibly the National Guard.
Where I think the coverage fell down was before the riots, which helped bring the tension on. I think the Weekly was good at covering issues below the I-10, but with the mainstream papers and TV news stations, you couldn't get them south of the 10 unless it was a really big story. L.A. kind of lends itself to that, where its industries of film, TV and music are considered more important than the issues of poverty and gangs.
Once the riots happened, they were covered well as an event. But the lack of involvement in the community leading up to that may have helped fester the feelings of isolation and lack of social change that led to the unrest.
NT: What would you do differently if you were to photograph the ’92 riots again?
TS: If I were transported back there, knowing what I know now, I think I might've done a much better job. For this recent project, I looked at every frame I shot. I took the day off, took a magnifying glass and looked at every image I produced. And I remember back then looking at these photos and going, "This one isn't going to work," "This isn't an action shot." And now, looking at some of them again, I think, "My god, I love this photo I used to hate," because the expression on the person's face tells a story. Now, I look at people's emotions more, rather than looking for that great shot of smoke or fire.
For another classic example, there were two types of photographers on 9/11. Most people took pictures of the buildings falling down. But the really good photographers shot the expressions of the people watching. Their expressions tell such an amazing story.
NT: So, more focus on people and faces?
TS: The police, too. When I was looking through the images, I saw some of the expressions of the police. They were hit pretty hard as well. They weren't stoic. They were affected.
It was interesting going back and totally immersing myself in this. This was probably the first time I'd ever looked at what I'd done as a body of work. I wanted to kind of relive what it felt like. You really get a better sense of what was happening. You turn off the TV and music, and you look at these pictures through a magnifying glass. You can see the grain. You remember developing the film. You remember how scared you were to take a photograph. It was a hard thing to photograph. It could get you in a lot of trouble.