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Risking his life repeatedly, he hopped freight trains in Mexico to chase a story — the migration of children to America. Decades earlier, he covered another crisis: the arrival of thousands of Vietnamese evacuees at Camp Pendleton after the fall of Saigon.
Don Bartletti, who retired Nov. 25 after 31 years at the Los Angeles Times, knows immigration and refugees like the back of his Canons.
“No wall, no doctrine can stop humanity,” Bartletti said. “It’s as old as history itself. People used to chase the herd across the horizon for food. Now we’re chasing the almighty dollar.”
After attending Vista High School and Palomar College, the son of a career Marine enlisted in the Army in 1968 and attended Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Ga. — aiming to be in charge rather than report to the “nimrods” he saw in basic training.
Although he took a basic photo class at Palomar, he didn’t buy his first camera — a Nikkormat for $90 — until he was in Vietnam. (He added a $250 Nikon F before he left.)
He began his photojournalism career with three years at The Vista Press, a year at the Oceanside Blade-Tribune and a 1977-1984 stint at what became the Union-Tribune.
Bartletti, now 69, went on long photo trips, including a three-month journey to Central America with a Union reporter, using the Spanish he learned in school. The stresses led to the breakup of his first marriage after 18 years. He later met Diana Rice, a subject of a story he was covering, and has been married to her for 25 years. He has a grown son and daughter, 40 and 41, and four grandchildren.
At the Times, he won many of his 40 international awards, including one he prizes the most — an Overseas Press Club honor for writing. His feature-photography Pulitzer followed his train-hopping journey of 2000. He also won the Robert F. Kennedy journalism award twice and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2015 for “Product of Mexico,” a Times investigation into Mexican mega-farms.
In retirement, he’s planning a photo book called “The Roads Most Traveled,” which he calls a visual record of the causes and consequences of undocumented migration from Mexico and Central America to the United States.
In a Q-and-A, the most decorated photojournalist in county history reflected on his Pulitzer-winning career and the current political debate.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What experiences in Vietnam shaped your photographic or social consciousness?
I was an infantry officer, and I was assigned to run convoys of bombs, helicopter jet fuel up to this plateau on the DMZ … which was very dangerous because we were ambushed a lot. It taught me to try to organize confusion. And the confusion is the whole 360-degree scene, which can be jungles, rivers, mountains, smoke, clouds, dirt, mud, tracks — whatever. Try to focus on what is important to keep me alive. In photojournalism, I do the same thing — only I’m not pushing the shutter to kill anybody. This time, everybody lives forever.
How were you received when you came back from Vietnam?
My wife picked me up at San Diego Airport when I first flew home. Went up to a hotel in Mission Valley, next-door to the Union-Tribune, and that was in 1971. Going up the elevator, one man said: “Welcome home.” I just broke down in tears. That was the last welcome-home comment I got for 30 years. In fact, it got even worse.
I went out to visit my old photo teacher, Justus Ahrend, at Palomar College. And I was walking by the student union and kids were sitting outside having lunch. And they looked at me, and one person whispered: “Hey, is that a jarhead?” — because my head was still shaved. So there was a disparaging attitude already.
Now I know why young people are asked to be soldiers — because, like me, speaking for myself, I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. I didn’t frankly give a shit. I just wanted to stay alive, so I trained myself to be the best killer I could. Just so I could live.
Did you ever have PTSD?
You know, I saw horrible things in Vietnam … just nightmarish things. But when I came back, it took me probably a year not to jump when the doorbell rang or car backfired. It took me maybe six months to go comfortably over 40 miles an hour in a car. Everything was slow speed and horribly noisy in Vietnam. There was confusion everywhere. But I didn’t shoot anybody in the head. I didn’t lop off any ears. I didn’t shoot or kill any babies.
Some of my fellow soldiers were killed near me, but I didn’t see it happen. But I tell ya — I have an opinion about PTSD. It’s a result of horror beyond belief and it’s involuntary. You can’t stop thinking about it. It gets embedded in you. Domestic abuse will do that.
But I think there are a lot of Vietnam veterans who are full of shit — because I served with mostly draftees, and many of the truck drivers in my company were from Appalachia, Tennessee — not to disparage any group of people in that part of the country. But in impoverished areas. They joined or they were drafted because they were not in school. They joined because they didn’t have a job. They were drafted because, they were just wandering.
Well, they came back from Vietnam to the same hopeless future. To find sympathy with them, sure. We were doing that as a nation. We try not to leave them on the street. But many of these Vietnam vets are full of crap.
In May, you reunited with the subject of a famous photo you took 40 years ago at Camp Pendleton — a 5-year-old Vietnamese girl with her 109-year-old great-grandmother. Did you have the same sensation of closing the circle when (Times reporter) Anh Do was able to track her down?
It certainly did. Because I think one of the responsibilities of journalists is not just to mark the moment but use it as a foundation to watch change. OK, what’s coming next? The story doesn’t end with a thousandth of a second shutter speed. It’s only the beginning of it.
So to find her again was incredible — both visually, to see that same little cherubic face now 40 years later and learn her story. Did she become an American? Was she as a refugee able to find a new life? Yeah, she did.
One of the most viral photos in photojournalism history was a Syrian boy dead on a Turkish beach, and it woke up the world to the refugee crisis. And now we have this pushback as a result of Paris and San Bernardino. What did you think about the original reaction to the photo? And what is your reaction to the pushback?
My reaction to the photo was right in line with millions of people. They saw this innocent child, wearing brand-new tennis shoes, lying face down in the sand. Only the most coldhearted person would not feel some relationship to it. And if it got that goddamn bad, well, we’d better start taking a look at it.
To have the type of passion that you have to document immigrant/refugee experience means that you have to have a sense of right and wrong. And can there be, from your perspective, a journalist who doesn’t have an expressed outrage, preference for one policy or another?
I don’t think any journalist can operate without an opinion — because we are so deep into each side, speaking for myself. When I’m on the immigrant trails of Mexico or in the barrios of sending communities, I get it. I see why they want to leave. Probably should leave.
When I’m in the elementary schools in north San Diego County and I see 80 percent of the children with Hispanic names eating breakfast at their desk, being served lunch, and all teachers being bilingual — I’ve been told it’s an economic strain on the school system. Using my town of Vista as an example.
I understand both sides of the issue. I’ve taken pictures with tears in my eyes. I’ve been enraged at rallies on this side of the border where students from Santa Ana High School stomped on the American flag, urging immigration reform.
But as a journalist, I’m not namby-pamby. I’m not in the middle. I’m not afraid to show the harshest of both sides — because my job as a photojournalist is to give YOU a choice. If you see those pictures, if you read those stories, then you’re the one that’s gotta make the change — if one, in your opinion, is needed. I’m not an advocacy journalist. I can’t be, because then I would risk alienating one side and restricting my access.
Have you felt you’ve made a dent in the consciousness of the public to advance the agenda of more rights for refugees or immigrants?
I think I have. And I haven’t promoted myself as being an advocate for one side or the other. And I want to reaffirm that. I’m not trying to say that the L.A. Times doesn’t have an opinion, because we do.
But by staying in touch with people who are leaving the corruption of Central America and Mexico, I think the message is: Hey, Central America and Mexico, get off your frickin’ corrupt ass and do something here. And Donald Trump is screaming at them, too. I am not a politician of that bent.
But on this side of the border, when I see immigrants succeeding and bringing their joyful culture, language, food and art, I think: My God, this is wonderful. I feel so uncomfortable when I go to Seattle or Portland because it’s quiet in a restaurant, and they’re all white people. I come back to L.A. and — yahoo! Look at these different people.
That’s the great experiment that California is. So my work is steadily documenting this. I want to show my descendants how they possibly got to where they are. Why are we such a mixed community? Well, back in 1976 down on the border the fence was a strand of barbed wire, beaten into the mud by hundreds of feet. Hundreds of feet that needed a better life, an opportunity.
What photos, individual moments, have you missed in your career that you’d love to have back?
Oh, gosh. I’ll tell you one. I was commuting to Orange County, and I was going through the Border Patrol checkpoint at San Onofre on I-5, … and I’m in the fast lane, and I look over four lanes, and sitting, being guarded by Border patrolman on a bench, was a woman wrapped in an American flag, looking up at the officer. Now I tried to pull over, and by that time I was beyond. Had I turned around in the Border Patrol parking lot, they would have … arrested me. But the symbolism was breathtaking. A woman, I assume, was undocumented.
Einstein and other scientists do their best work in their 30s. But you did some of your best work in your 50s and 60s. Is there anything in photojournalism that is beyond your ability now?
It’s physically more demanding. I get tired more often. When I drive long distances, I get drowsy. Physically, I’m still in good shape. I don’t have arthritis. I’m not as thin and lithe as I used to be. But I use my time a little more wisely. I manage my time better.
Why’d you take the (L.A. Times) buyout?
I’m 68. I was at the paper 31 years. My dream was to leave the paper at age 70. I’d have a going-away party on the top floor of the Bonaventure Hotel. Go out on my own terms. Ya know, sum up my career in 15 minutes and express my joy to the craft and to my colleagues.
But to be offered one year’s pay, and then to work another year beyond that … would not have given me what I now have. And that’s an opportunity to do a book about my 35 years of experience documenting U.S.-Mexico relations, the border, immigration causes and consequences. So NOW I finally can come home — because after work I was too exhausted. On the weekends, I was too obsessed with chores around the house and other things that recharge my batteries. So I can never make much headway on a book while I was employed.
What are the upsides and downsides to the current digital photography explosion?
The upside to it is if every citizen can be a journalist — and if he’s confronted with a situation of great historic value — thank God that more people have cameras. Studies have shown, however, that when a set of pictures were laid in front of subjects, viewers, they inevitably favored images made by a professional photojournalist. Isn’t that interesting? And that was result of composition, angle, subject matter, timing, the moment, framing.
So I think photojournalists who produce images like you see in the L.A. Times and the National Geographic and Geo magazine in Germany and throughout the world will always have an appeal to people. But this is what I’ve noticed: When I watch people across a cafe reading a newspaper, they’ll look at a picture for maybe a second or less.
As a monetized part of the news industry, what is the future of photojournalism?
Yeah, it’s an excellent question because it’s an expensive forum of expression. Probably costs more than it would for a reporter to go to the scene. The photographer needs to linger. On all of my stories, I stayed two or three times as long, racking up to or three times the expenses. The equipment and the maintenance, and printing pictures is way more expensive. Storing digital files is more expensive.
The future of it depends on: Can we sell and make money to support this wonderful, wonderful craft? Whether it’s going to sustain itself in print, I don’t know. I walk through Barnes & Noble’s magazine department and I see thousands of fuckin’ magazines, and they all are plastered with pictures.
So I don’t think the discipline of photography in general will ever go away. But I do believe its future in newspapers will thrive and bloom on the web. And I think it’s dying in print. In 10 years, I don’t think you’ll be able to sit down at your breakfast table, like I treasure doing, and read the paper.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of Bartletti’s wife, Diana Rice.