By Isotta Poggi
Acquisitions and Exhibitions of Photographs
During a recent virtual interview from his studio in Los Angeles, photojournalist Ted Soqui shared some of the essential gadgets for his profession like a gas mask, a drone, and of, course, his camera.
Ted Soqui has photographed Los Angeles since the 1980s and has been at the center of some of L.A.’s most tumultuous moments that have defined the city’s history. He covered the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s, the 1992 uprising, Occupy L.A. in 2010, and Black Lives Matter protests in 2014 and 2020.
In the past decade, his photography has created iconic symbols of this era’s resistance zeitgeist. Soqui’s portrait of a young woman protesting in downtown L.A. in 2010 was reinterpreted by artist Shepard Fairey and made the front cover of Time magazine as the “Protester,” 2011’s Person of the Year.
“I’ve been covering protests for my whole life. My whole photojournalistic life. So that’s been my bread and butter,” he said. “Like a person in religion gets the call to do it? I mean, I could teach somebody how to cover the ‘who, what, when, where, and how’ with the camera. But if they don’t have the spirit to do it, it often doesn’t work.”
Soqui’s works, which include artists’ books in the collections of the Getty Research Institute, reveal his commitment to connecting with his subjects and communities with empathy and attentiveness, from the close-up portraits to the family businesses affected by protests to the empty city shut down by a pandemic.
Covering L.A. History
Soqui grew up in San Francisco and moved to Los Angeles to study photography. He received his first important assignment in 1984 for LA Weekly. At the time, AIDS had been recognized as an epidemic in Los Angeles but was still largely ignored. LA Weekly, the city’s dogged, independent paper, was one of the first outlets to seriously address this public health crisis.
“LA Weekly was the leader of denouncing the epidemics of AIDS,” said Soqui. “Not necessarily just in denouncing, but getting information. ‘This is where you could get help. These are the people that are developing medications. These are ways that you could extend your life.’ And it was quite fascinating to be part of that.” For Soqui, photography was a critical tool for reporting and informing the public about the AIDS crisis, at a time when it was still considered a taboo topic.
Covering L.A. news from AIDS to the L.A. Marathon, celebrity trials, and presidential visits, Soqui learned to navigate the city’s neighborhoods. By the time of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising in the predominantly Black neighborhood of South Los Angeles, he knew how to safely engage with the crowds and capture the moment.
In 1992, when four police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King, Soqui watched the protest escalate into a violent uprising. “I was covering the verdict from the courthouse. Because there was part of us that felt this was such an open-and-shut case, [we thought] the verdicts would come back with some sort of justice. But the verdicts came down one by one, ‘not guilty, not guilty, not guilty.’ We really didn’t expect that.”
Soqui eventually reinterpreted his extensive coverage of the uprising, from images of protesters to security forces, the looting of mini-malls to burning cars, in a photobook. On the 25th anniversary of the L.A. uprising in 2017, he released 429 Voices in the Wilderness, Voices of the Unheard (referring to April 29, the date of the uprising) which showed how over two decades later, some, but not all, areas of the city had been polished and rebuilt.
Symbols of Protest
More recently, his photographs have helped make iconic symbols. When the Occupy Wall Street Movement against economic inequality spread globally in 2010, Soqui covered the Los Angeles protest. He photographed Sarah Mason, a young protestor facing the police with her elbows linked to demonstrators on each side. Chance reflections of the sunlight on a nearby building illuminated her gaze, while her eyes looked straight into Soqui’s camera. The bandana on her face carried the message “99%,” a symbol that contrasted with the 1% wealthy elite.
In 2011, street artist Shepard Fairey applied his stencil- and spray-painting effects to the image and associated Mason’s portrait with photographs of global protests to create an iconic “person of the year” for the cover of Time magazine. “From the Arab spring to Athens, from Occupy Wall Street to Moscow,” read the text on the cover. Adding an edge to Soqui’s photograph, Fairey put forward a model protestor speaking out against injustice worldwide.
Soqui and Fairey continued their artistic collaboration on political resistance in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hand of the Minneapolis police. Soqui supplied his photograph of a young Black Lives Matter protestor and Fairey edited it into his signature street-art style.
The image shows a young protestor covering his face with an American flag bandana, his eyes looking far away, beyond our field of view. Soqui recounted the circumstances behind this image: “It’s late in the afternoon and I just saw him as the sun’s setting and he had the mask on,” said Soqui of capturing the image. “And once again, I gravitate towards masks. Long lens, same lens as Sarah [Mason], almost the same distance away. And I looked over at him and I was like, ‘Oh, that looks really great.’”
Fairey’s poster art transformed the young demonstrator’s personal gaze into a symbol of protest. The empty background became the backdrop canvas for news images from the Rodney King riots Soqui had documented almost two decades earlier. These direct visual associations are reminders of the scarred and direct relation of past events, whose effects are still unresolved in the present.
Storytelling through Photobooks
Drawing from his extensive photo archive, Soqui used the visual language of photography as an insightful and critical storytelling tool. Some of his books, such as 429 Voices in the Wilderness, Voices of the Unheard and Occupy Los Angeles, are traditional photobook formats, in which each photograph is intentionally placed in relation to the graphic layout of the book and the sequencing of the pages.
However, Soqui has used the book format more creatively, as a form of expression that also speaks through the physical materials from the binding to the cover design to the font style, and more. “Most photographers see books, traditionally hardbound and clay, four-color black and white, Helvetica type, evenly spaced margins. And I saw books as an expression,” said Soqui. “The Gutenberg Bible wasn’t great because of the words in it. It was great because it was beautiful.”
One of Soqui’s innovative artist books examines Los Angeles’s history of social unrest as cycles. Rome-Los Angeles: A City Falling Off the Edge is illustrated with blurred, raw images printed on four accordion-fold panoramas of newspaper off-white paper that can be unfolded, juxtaposed, and “read” in infinite visual configurations. “A lot of things in Los Angeles reflect Roman empire,” said Soqui. “We have the Coliseum. Our police are often referred to as centurions. Our street numbering was very Roman in name. Our schools adopted a lot of Roman, Greek Roman traditions. It’s an empire. It was kind of like this new empire in that it was just growing so fast, kind of like the Roman empire with nobody to stop it.”
The foldouts of Rome are titled as seasons: Earthquake Season, Gang Season, Riot Season, and Season to Arms. Besides their reference to the year-long calendar cycle, the use of “seasons” alludes to film and TV series, a nod to L.A.’s shimmering entertainment industry, environmental forces (such as earthquakes and fires), and even socio-political phenomena. Government corruption, gangs, riots, and increased gun sales follow in cycles.
The year 2020 brought challenges that were unimaginable in pre-Covid-19 times and a new form of disruption to L.A. Soqui once again was there to document it. He embraced drone photography to capture the magnitude of the pandemic’s effects on people’s lives and the environment. In the midst of, and in spite of, this screeching halt and the humanitarian crisis, social protest and advocacy for civil rights continued. Soqui’s photography also continues to fulfill the mandate he upholds as a journalist. “Journalists are not propagandists. We don’t work for the police. We don’t work for the protestors. We’re witnesses.”
His impact in the visual media is present in his photographs as much as in his books. For Soqui, the four seasons presented in Rome-Los Angeles continue to swing from one cycle to the next.