Len-Lahman photo 2008

Len Lahman in the LA Riots, 1992

[Transcribed from tape and edited by Frances GallopAway-Tompkins, as told by Len to her, her husband Tim, and her daughter Jennifer.

Len was an admired and widely published photojournalist (National Geographic, San Jose Mercury News, and many others).]

  

Len: I’ll tell you about the picture that got away. If you could imagine sitting in a car, right? You’re in the driver’s seat in the left lane of a one-way street, and you’re alone. And this guy’s just about to hit the windshield from the right side with a bat. He’s coming around the corner, I’ve been watching him now for about thirty seconds, traffic was starting to move, but now I’m sitting at a red light. I can’t move, I can’t get away. There’s cars in front of me, cars beside me, cars behind me.

 

Meanwhile, over there at the Arco station… I was gonna pull into the Arco station and kind of get in the back of the pay booth and maybe even get inside the pay booth, which is fairly safe since it’s got money in it and they keep the doors locked. But even that was out of control. So by the time I started rolling through the intersection, I’ve loaded this Nikon with a 20 millimeter lens on it and 1600 ASA film, really fast. It’s still daylight, right? I can shoot at 500 at 16 and put it on infinity and not worry about focusing it. The windows are up, the doors are locked, the windows are still clean, since it’s a rental car. Your car or my car windows always have those dirt eyebrows where the windshield wipers don’t get? But not this one. So as soon as I see him coming with the bat, I raise that Nikon as fast as I can, push the shutter button down, and it runs probably fifteen frames. He doesn’t realize what I’m doing, and I’m not sure if I do either. 

 

But what I’m looking at with my eye through this camera, with this lens, is wider than your human vision. I’m looking at half of the windshield. I’m looking at this guy coming over me, over his shoulder is a liquor store, and there’s a couple of guys with bricks, picking ’em up off the street. Then there’s the slanting window frame and there’s the passenger window and the seat next to me. All of that close-up. And beyond, out the passenger window, you can see the store that they originally set on fire. It’s being looted, there’s stuff being thrown out on the sidewalk, television sets rolling out on the sidewalk, cases of liquor being drug out on the sidewalk, people coming both ways, people standing on cars. You’re talking about probably fifty, sixty people at the intersection. And I’m still at the point where I can’t move.

 

Well that Blood hit the windshield with his bat and it just went BANG! like that, instantly went to crystal, and I couldn’t see a thing. But just a split second before that, something hit the door frame in the back of the car, hit it so hard it shook the door. Now remember, this is a locked door on a brand-new car. It hit so hard it popped my door open, and all the windows on the passenger side instantaneously shattered. It definitely was some kind of projectile, because anything to hit the car that hard was either one hell of a brick or several bricks at once, or maybe something else, I don’t know.

 

But that did not solve the problem; I still had this Blood in my face with his tire bat. You know what a tire bat is? They’re about two feet long, with a leather strap on one end for your wrist, and they’re used by truckers to test the inflation on their tires. They’re usually pretty short but they have a lead collar around the top, and when they hit the tire they can tell by the bounce of the bat if the inflation is correct. Well that’s what he had, and he’s getting ready to do it again and this time I got no windows on his side and I got a door that’s flapping off its hinges.

 

Jennifer: How come you didn’t have a gun with you?

 

Len: I had enough stuff to take. And guns are two edged swords; unless you’re really prepared to use ’em and devoting all your time and energy to ’em, they’re not worth it. They really aren’t. Guns will incite people that might have thought twice and left you alone. Too threatening. Cameras are threatening enough.

 

Well at this point that guy’s around my door, I’m still in my seat belt — like a fool, I’ve got a seat belt on, right? and a shoulder harness! And I’m thinking (all this stuff’s racing through my head) I’m thinking like, man, if they hit this car that hard again, I know what’s gonna happen. That stupid supplemental air bag’s gonna go off in my face and I’m not gonna be able to see nothing. So I’m getting ready for that, like pushing on the steering column with one hand, and trying to get the belt off with the other. Meanwhile the cars in front of me that were creeping ahead are stopping to gawk, and every time I put on the brakes the car door slides back open. And at that point a second Blood sees what I got in the car and just makes a beeline for it with a brick in his hand. He’s starting to lean down, getting ready to hit me with it. Well the first Blood sees him coming, gets in his way, gets into the car and slugs me in the face. What I did was raise my arm to protect myself. Now, I’m already bleeding from when all that broken glass was going by me. It was like lots and lots, dots of blood, not any major cuts, just nicks. It’s in your nose and in your eyes and it’s down on your cheek and in your teeth and in your shoes and in your pockets, plus now it’s under you because when you reached across, it slid down your back and now it’s under your butt and you’re sitting on broken glass. Things are getting very uncomfortable very quickly.

 

When I raised my arm, the camera that I had on my shoulder was exposed. He grabs the camera, and because of the way I had my arm, he pulled it right off just like that. That’s the last time I ever saw it. It was the camera with the film in it. As far as everything I’ve seen, that was probably the most infamous picture of violence that I ever saw anywhere, either with my own eyes or on anyone else’s film. But it got away.

Jennifer: You’d think they’d have some respect for the press!

Len: Why? You don’t realize those people — the rage is just incredible.

Frances: It’s rage that’s 200 years old.

Len: I’ve never seen anything like it.

(Pause)

Len: Anyway, the guy in front of me at that point realizes what’s happening and he stops, with the light green. And I’m stuck again. I never saw anybody White for blocks and blocks and blocks going up to it. But I still didn’t feel — threatened — not like that. Most people are still reasonable. You know, they might not like me being there, but they’re not gonna do that.  And I think, under normal circumstances, most people wouldn’t, although people I talked to in LA said that’s not the case anymore.

The guy with the bat’s still a big concern, you know. I see him go in front of the car, coming around, getting ready to break my driver’s side window, which is still intact, right? — with the door flapping open. And I’m busy with the guy that’s taking the camera, but I can’t stop him, and he splits with it, leaving the door open. And I’m faced with looking at the liquor store and the looted store and traffic in front of me, a line of parked cars, and a handicapped curb cut in the sidewalk. There was only one thing to do: I drove up on the sidewalk next to this building, a brick building, at which point the guy with the bat’s around trying to get in this side, between the car and the wall. And that’s the point where … I think I understand now the fine line between rage and mindless fear and anger. It’s not a very good feeling at all, because I was really tempted to put the car right against him and just squish the hell out of him.

Frances: It would have been self-defense.

Len: Yeah, but you still have seventy or more people to explain that to in the next five seconds, everything happening so fast. He made the next move, from being nearly against the wall: he hit the door and shut it for me, shut the door and cut his hands. Then I drove down the sidewalk half a block, knowing that every liquor store in LA has an alley behind it. (The blocks in LA are very uniform. It’s just block after block after block, and every half block there’s an alley.) I went toward the alley, looking through my driver’s side window. The street’s over there, then a line of parked cars, I’m driving on the sidewalk, and there’s a brick wall beside me. I can’t see through my front window but I can see enough. But if I roll the window down, I’m gonna get another brick, so I’m just kinda looking down the side. I could see the alley as I drove up to it and got out of the traffic. But that didn’t end the trouble, because I couldn’t really see anything. I drove about fifty feet, which I figured was enough to get out of the intersection, and I was stopped by more traffic.

This old man in a Cadillac came up behind me and just bumped me with his car…and he bumped me again. I’m looking over my shoulder, my back window’s still intact, I could see who it was, and he didn’t look threatening. I was wiping the blood off of me and trying to get my wits about me, figuring out if I got anything else stolen, that kinda stuff. So he comes up to the car and he says, “Son, I’m sorry this happened to you, in my neighborhood, but you gotta get outa here. Now!”

And I’m saying, “Yeah, I’m gonna get outa here.”

And he’s saying, “No, no, you wanna turn right on Slauson, that’s your quickest way to the Harbor [Freeway].”

I was so out of it I thought I was on the other side of the freeway. I was gonna turn left to get to it, which would have been right down in the bowels of South-Central LA with a busted-up car.

Tim: How did you drive on the freeway?

Len: Well the side window rolled down, and I just drove toward the LA Times with my head out the window — on the Harbor Freeway. By that point everybody in LA knows what’s going on. There are already somber faces everywhere, nobody’s making jokes.

Frances: It’s too bad you lost that film!

Len: Oh yeah, it’s a real drag.

Frances: Maybe they’ll sell it to somebody.

Len: The Europeans are just dying for this stuff.  They’re buying it up right and left. But the newspaper owns the rights to it, they just collect all the loot…  After that it was…I felt like I’d paid my dues. Till Lloyd and I went right back out. He was giving me a lecture ‘cause, you know, Lloyd’s Black, and he’s saying, “They should have never sent you to South-Central LA, they should have sent me! They should have sent you to the church to do the memorial service.” And about an hour later we’re in the J. J. Newbury store that’s just getting looted like crazy, the first store to get looted in downtown LA.

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