Francine Orr had experience reporting on poverty and humanitarian crises around the globe. But while working on “Gimme Shelter,” an audio slide show about a local homeless community living under a bridge, she found plenty to cover—and  plenty to fear—right in her own back yard. Here, she talks about why these stories matter and what defines a journalist.

Where exactly is the 7th Street Bridge?

In Long Beach [California]. Our story was about the L.A. River. The reporter and I, Christopher Goffard, we kept walking around up and down the river looking for a story. We came back to the first place we went to. An outreach worker from the Village in Long Beach took us there.

A friend of mine, one of my coworkers, Sachi Cunningham, was with us when we met Lima. Lima is a young woman with a fantastic voice. She’s Samoan. She was living under the bridge with her boyfriend, and had been living there for years. She was telling me that nearly every day her family came and brought her food, trying to get her to come home. It struck me as unusual that she was still there, because I knew Samoan culture from my time in the Peace Corps, and family is such an important part of that culture.

But she was mentally ill, a drug addict. And she was stuck under the bridge. But as I kept going back, I noticed Lima wasn’t there any longer. I managed to track her down at her family’s home, and she explained to me that she had gotten off the river. She sang the soundtrack for the audio slideshow.

That audio works really well with the pictures.

I think so, too. It’s fascinating spending time with these folks. The longer that you spend with them, the more you care. When I was first given the assignment, I was actually quite afraid for my personal safety.

Los Angeles Times/Francine Orr

Los Angeles Times/Francine Orr

What worried you most?

I was with drug addicts who were mentally ill, and sometimes I had no one watching my back. So I really had to follow my gut instinct. Sometimes I would get there, and things felt out of control, and I had to leave. People were throwing things, screaming. Sometimes I could be present for that, and sometimes I couldn’t be.

There’s such a history of random violence along the river. Everything is okay there until it’s not, and sometimes you don’t have warning before it changes. I always had to be aware of who was standing behind me, because I didn’t want someone to smash the back of my head while I was doing my work.

My process is to linger on stories, to spend time with people. But sometimes that can be a detriment to you in terms of safety. What I tried to do was find people who intrigued me and latch on to them, listen to them.

My process in my work is to listen more than I photograph. I want to understand their nature. I want to understand their situation. I want to be a good storyteller, a good journalist, but I can’t do that unless I listen.

How long did you spend under the bridge?

The process took about six months. I went as often as I could. My editor, Mary Vignoles, was very patient with me. I went back to her and said, “I’m afraid.” She said, “Okay. Follow your instincts. Go and spend time until you can’t. I don’t even ask you to take a picture. Just go back and spend time, and when you feel like you can’t be there any longer, leave. But then go back another day.”

It was hard. I often feel an obligation to the paper, to my editor, to the story, to be taking pictures. I want to do the very best I can. And I did meet a lot of interesting people.

For me the most fascinating person is John. He’s mentally ill, a self-described addict. One time a lot of people were walking away to go eat dinner at a church. I was taking my time going over these precarious rocks with my camera equipment. He waited for me. And I thanked him, and said, “You’re a gentleman.”

And he said, “I might be mentally ill, but I’m still a gentleman.” It shows me the humanness past the mental illness. He’s an artist. I think he has been abused. He has scars on his arms where he cut himself. He’s trying to live out his life with some degree of happiness. He said that his time on the river has given him some of the happiest moments of his life.

In my work I’m curious about people and I care about people. I think those are two important qualities of a journalist.

Earlier this year at the Nieman Foundation, a difficult issue came up at a conference on trauma journalism. When you’re reporting on vulnerable or traumatized populations, how can you best tell a story without exploiting the lives of the people you cover?

It’s a very complex issue, and it’s always present in my mind. I don’t want to exploit people. I want to tell peoples’ stories, because we get to know ourselves better as a community by sharing stories.

I’m a journalist; I’m not a social worker. If I do my job well, I present the story in a truthful manner, in an accurate manner, in a somewhat compassionate manner. I leave it to the viewer, to the reader, to respond. If they feel there is a need or an injustice that requires some action, that’s their role.

My role is to present the story. It’s especially difficult when I’m dealing with extreme poverty or suffering. How I reconcile it is to be a great listener, compassionate, sometimes humorous in my approach when I’m reporting. But especially to be present, so I can bring those stories to the readers.

How long have you been doing this work?

I’ve been staff for the L.A. Times for 10 years. I worked for the Kansas City Star two-and-a-half years before that. Prior to that, I freelanced for the L.A. Times for five years. And prior to that, I was a Peace Corps volunteer.

That’s where I learned my listening skills, by observing that culture, and by observing documentary teams coming into that culture and making films. Sometimes those documentaries were not based on facts. People came in with a preconceived notion of what their story was and made their documentary based on that, instead of making a documentary based on peoples’ stories.

Were you already a photojournalist back then?

I wanted to be a photojournalist for many years. My college didn’t have a photojournalism program. I took one introductory photo class, which I got a “C” in because I had spelling errors in my essay.

I said, “Look, I have a learning disability. I can’t spell. I don’t think my photography should be judged on my spelling.” My teacher, Sister Mary Rebecca Conner, said, “I’m judging you based on the potential I think you have for photography.”

She was using it as a motivation for me. It certainly was, because I wanted to go out and prove her wrong. Looking back, the grade was a gift from that professor. She died this year on December 25th. I’m thinking of her and her influence on my life.

On the Times site, I saw several other photos that were part of this project but didn’t make it into the audio slide show.

That’s the dilemma when you’re putting together an audio slide show. You can have the most magnificent images. But just like the writer might have the most fabulous quotes, when you’re putting together a story, if a part doesn’t fit in that narrative stream, you have to leave it on the editing floor.

Some of my favorite images weren’t included in the slide show. But we did an extra edit, with some of the extra photos that we thought had value. The pictures of Lima, for example, or the photo of Raven shooting pigeons under the bridge while the cat is waiting for dinner. Or Andrea in her little hovel drawing pictures. We didn’t think they fit in the audio slide show, but we wanted readers to see them.

How long do you make that audio slide show? Because where the magic also happens is in the editing. Frankly, I have a very difficult time with that. Because I want to include all those images. Slowly you chip it away, and chip it way, and chip it way, and finally you get something you want to present to the reader.

Marc Martin actually produced this project. Typically I want to produce it, or I want to work closely with the producer, but I was also working on other things at the time. So Mary asked Marc to help, and he produced it fully for me. I liked how he handled it when John sang the Janis Joplin song. I liked the way he brought readers into the story with images of the river.

I turned over the material, and I told him the characters that stood out for me in my mind, the characters I’d tell someone about over dinner. I singled out hose people for Marc, and he followed that and built the structure of a story around that.

Was there anything about the bridge experience that you couldn’t get into the photos?

One thing that you couldn’t know from the images is the smell. I find that a lot of addicts lose their sense of smell. The smell of the combination of garbage and human waste was a bit of a challenge. But that was minor in comparison to the safety issue.

What big story would you really like to cover?

My wish story would be Sudan, and Congo—I’ve been to Africa five times, to nine countries—Nigeria, Angola, South Africa, Lesotho, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia. I’m forgetting some at the moment. I covered a terrorist bombing in Mombasa, Kenya, and the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda—a story I found myself. I covered the 10-year anniversary [of genocide] in Rwanda, corruption in the oil industry in Angola. I also reported on AIDS in India, and the tsunami in Sri Lanka and Banda Ache.

But I want to tell you about an experience I had this week. We had the largest fire ever in Los Angeles County. 260 miles were burnt, and I was on top of the fire from the beginning. I’m really proud of that, that I was the first L.A.Times reporter on scene to that fire.

I covered the fire, and then I covered the aftermath of the fire. Recently, we found a family that lost everything, just everything.  I met them as we stood in the ashes of their home, and they thanked me for showing up.  The wife, Nancy, told me that she had lost everything within a matter of minutes from the fire, and she was thanking me—how humbling is that? To stand in front of someone to try to report that story, and then to be thanked for showing up.

I believe that’s what journalists do at the end of the day. We show up. We show up to war, to funerals, to the worst crises that families have and to the best times, the celebrations. But we show up.

[As part of the Los Angeles River project, Christopher Goffard  wrote a print piece looking at some veterans of and newcomers to river life, as well as the outsiders who reach out to them.]

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