A few weeks ago I photographed Richard Jackson for the Chronicle of Higher Education. A professor at UCLA and former head of the National Center for Environmental Health at the CDC, Dr. Jackson is the host of Designing Healthy Communities, a documentary miniseries airing on PBS this week and next. He is one of the leading advocates for better urban design, which in turn leads to better overall health for a community’s residents.
Jackson had the perfect place in mind for the shoot, a concrete island outside of baggage claim at LAX, where he says he often waits in a noxious cloud of cigarette smoke and car exhaust for up to an hour for a shuttle bus that will take him up to the UCLA campus. He spends his weekends in San Francisco, where his family currently resides. “This is my idea of hell,” he yelled over a cacophony of car horns and revving engine noises pinging back and forth between pavement and low cement ceilings as we exited the baggage claim area. He had a point. The place doesn’t exactly scream ‘welcome to paradise.’
Photographing at LAX is fairly easy as long as you don’t pull out any lights and are out in the public area. Swarms of paparazzi and camera-toting tourists are a daily occurrence, so there’s a certain level of tolerance built in for casual shooting. So, I kept it simple, shooting only natural light and using the bounce from the adjacent parking deck to light the subject. We were able to shoot for several minutes without being hassled, which is more than you can say for many public spots in the city.
The following day I went to shoot him as he was giving a guest lecture to a class at the university. The material he presented is pretty interesting, and I found myself sticking around after I’d packed up my gear to listen to what he had to say. Many of us, particularly in LA, are already aware of what poor urban planning can do to impede pedestrians, but seeing it presented in photographs of labyrinthian neighborhoods and charts tracking our nations health decline with the rise of urban sprawl and suburbia was still fascinating and frustrating. It’s amazing to see how an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and asthma can in part be traced back to civic planners from the 1950′s. It also makes you realize the hurdles advocates of cities designed around pedestrians, such as Jackson, have to overcome.
This also made me appreciate living in Venice, which is an unusually walkable and bike friendly neighborhood. In fact, LA has numerous walkable neighborhoods. It’s just when you try to get from one to another that the nightmare begins. Speaking of which, it’s time to get away from this computer and go stretch my legs.