Photographer Joaquin Trujillo brings new life to the historical LA neighborhood of Watts in a photo essay for Los Angeles Magazine that marks the 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots. The former LA-based photographer spent nine days immersed in the neighborhood to capture the true essence of the community and its people. In this Q&A, LAmag’s photo director Amy Feitelberg goes “Behind the Camera” with Trujillo to get his take on the “Watts 50 Years Later” project that appears in the August issue of the magazine, on stands now.
What did you think of the assignment when I first called you?
What’s the saying? Be careful what you wish for? I’ve been wishing for more work like this. Because of the subject matter I was excited to get down there and start. I’m not a person who shoots off the hip; I would not shoot a person who’s just walking by, that’s not what my work is about. So I knew it was going to be a challenge, but one that I was looking forward to.
What is your work about then?
Meeting people and capturing this little window into their lives though their eyes or body language or what they’re wearing. It’s like a millisecond. I would never claim to know a place if I’ve only been there for a week or two—even a month. My work represents just a millisecond, and I’m able to capture that in a photograph.
What were you hoping to capture in Watts?
People that live there. I was trying to capture their reality.
How did you go about getting that?
I decided I had to literally walk the streets. I had my assistant drop me off and he would drive from street to street and I was just walking. I was taking a lot of notes; I have more notes from the week-and-a-half that I shot [in] than the 40 years that I’ve been shooting editorially. I was just walking and telling people what I was doing. They were really nice, but most gave me a firm no [when I asked to shoot them]. The word no doesn’t exist in my vocabulary, so it was really hard for me, but I don’t like to be pushy. I always believe when one person says no, you’re going to find the person around the corner who says yes. I had to turn a lot of corners until I found that person.
Would you say that was the biggest challenge that you faced? The nos?
Yeah. The nos, the nos, the nos, the nos. That was the biggest challenge. Definitely.
What surprised you the most?
Meeting principal Carlos Montes at Jordan High School. He’s so passionate and I’m a huge believer in that. Even when things are collapsing around me, I don’t lose faith. He’s actually making a difference and making an impact, so that was the highlight of the whole assignment for me.
Which image turned out to be your favorite?
The dominos shot (above), because the people were really great. It took three visits until they felt comfortable. I shot the first time, I didn’t shoot the second time, and I shot the third time. I love tabletop work; it has more of a human element to it. Another shot that I like is the shoes on the electrical wires. I got extremely lucky with the hummingbird right next to it, which represents a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To me, it represents growing up in Long Beach. When someone passed away, people would go and throw their shoes on wires. It felt like the little hummingbird was a person’s soul.
Did the assignment change your perception of Watts?
There is so much history there. There’s a portrait of kids that I took in a park. That’s the new Watts. That’s who Watts is now.
What do you hope people take away from the portfolio?
There are so many places in Los Angeles that make Los Angeles. It’s not just Hollywood and Malibu. People make Los Angeles, and hopefully they can see that.
I was trying to get a sense of some of these people. And I’m happy, I feel like I got it.
Check out the full interview at LAmag.com.