Gil Garcetti prosecutes a new cause – shooting photos that make a difference

The D.A. who prosecuted O.J. Simpson recommends following your passion to a second career if it's not in your first.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

He is, he once told Time magazine, the "poster child for career change."

It's an apt autobiographical one-liner. After all, the silver-haired man whose face became known to millions of Americans during one of the most notorious murder trials in recent history, has a strong case to support his claim. Consider the evidence:

Gil Garcetti then – career prosecutor, 32 years in the L.A. district attorney's office, the last seven of them as the man in charge. The man who oversaw the murder prosecution of O.J. Simpson. The man who also bore the brunt of blame from Los Angeles voters for the handling of what was known as the Rampart police corruption scandal – and was voted out of office in 2001.

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Gil Garcetti now – acclaimed photographer, hailed by American Photo magazine as one of the country's "master" photographers in 2003 (just two years after he left the D.A.'s office), and the author of five well-received photo books, including the just-released, "Water Is Key: A Better Future for Africa."

"I realized I was taking a big risk [with my first book]," says Mr. Garcetti, during an interview in the kitchen of his modernist, West Los Angeles home. "I knew if I fell on my face, this would be public news. But I just decided, well, I've been knocked down before. If you get knocked down, you get up and move on. I'll try something else if that doesn't work out."

Not only did Garcetti not fall down, he took off. He won accolades for that first outing, "Iron: Erecting the Walt Disney Concert Hall," which, like his other work, is in black and white. The book celebrates the 130 ironworkers whose skills were put to extraordinary test in the Frank Gehry-designed building, which stands in downtown L.A., an undulating sea of metallic swirls.

The renowned architectural photographer Julius Shulman, who is in his 90s, called Garcetti's images "remarkable." He struck up a relationship with the former D.A., who now calls Mr. Shulman a mentor. "I told Gil, you're a born photographer.... You're in the wrong business, you should join my club," says Shulman, recalling his first encounter with Garcetti.

He says Garcetti's work is full of sensitivity. "He's not just a good photographer," says Shulman. "His compositions spell out a sensitivity which embraces his subject in a personal way. [The Africa book] makes the viewer sensitive to what it's like to not have a cup of water.

The former D.A.'s new career in black and white didn't come completely out of the blue. He'd been taking pictures for years, intrigued by the darkroom his amateur photographer dad had at home. While his work hung on the wall of his office for years, it wasn't till later that he thought of a career as a photographer.

Like much in his experience growing up in a working-class L.A. neighborhood, the son of a Mexican-American mother who worked as a meatpacker and a Mexican immigrant father who never got a high school degree because he was in reform school, Garcetti had to reach far and work hard for his accomplishments. Both parents pushed him to get an education – he won an academic scholarship to the nearby University of Southern California, where many of Garcetti's fellow students came from privileged backgrounds.

"It was quite intimidating at first," he recalls. "A lot of students there drove fancy sports cars, and I had my '53 Plymouth. But I've always enjoyed people and I became more self-confident, in terms of realizing they were coming from a different place than I was, but that I could hold my own."

Likewise, the entry into his photographic vocation was not larkish dabbling: He took night classes and weekend courses for years to develop his skills.

Ultimately, he put down his briefcase for good and picked up his camera six months after he left office. As he was driving by the Disney Hall site one day, he was so struck by the men at work that he grabbed his camera, took a shot, and began the project that would become his first photo book.

Garcetti says he's never looked back, never wondered if he made the right choice to leave his legal career behind. He still gets asked about those days, especially about the Simpson trial and the role it played as a defining moment in contemporary American race relations. Garcetti says he meets an occasional white person who's angry with him over the not-guilty verdict, but that he never encounters criticism from blacks.

He remembers clearly the hours and hours he spent agonizing over how he would respond publicly to a verdict when it came in. He knew what he would say if the verdict was guilty or if there was a hung jury. But he says he didn't know what to say if the decision was not guilty. He called civic and religious leaders in the black community, asking advice. He even met with Jimmy Carter, when the former president was in L.A. to build homes with Habitat for Humanity.

"He still had his tool belt on," recalls Garcetti. "I went through the whole scenario for him and he said, 'Well, they'll find him not guilty. This is payback time. We know that many innocent blacks have been convicted and executed. There's nothing that you or anyone else can say that will heal this. It's going to take five to seven years before black people and white people start talking to one another again.'

"He scared me," says Garcetti. "But he was right."

Ask the former D.A. today which career satisfaction is greater, winning a trial or taking a good photograph, and he doesn't hesitate: "I would say it has to be a photograph. Because getting a conviction means there is someone who is still hurt, who has maybe lost someone. Getting a conviction is not going to make that person whole.

"But a photograph can change someone's life in a positive way," he says.

• • •

He's putting his assertion to the test with his most recent book about the need for clean water in West Africa. It examines the impact of clean water on everyday life, and how the lack of it affects everything from community health to girls going to school. Also it shows how the life of an entire village can be changed by making clean water deep beneath the ground more available.

In fact, with this book, Garcetti is reaching back to his former career, drawing on communication skills and political networking know-how to press the case made by his photographs. He has teamed with the Pacific Institute, a California environmental think tank, to launch a fundraising campaign for safe-water initiatives in West Africa (www.wateriskey.org).

Wherever he goes to speak about the book, Garcetti urges people to get involved with organizations working on the clean water issue. And he asks them to go to the Water Is Key website and donate $10 or more. His goal: to have 100,000 donations within the next two years – grass-roots backing he plans to broker in Washington for broader US aid for clean drinking water in Africa.

"I've got somewhat of a unique ability as a photographer to communicate," he says. "I have ... oral advocacy skills and writing skills. I have campaigning skills and fundraising skills. I've got a unique background that I bring to the table as I try to communicate the images that I've captured on film."

As the interview closes – he's got a plane to catch for Paris (next project: a look at women on bikes in Paris, to carry the social message about looking chic without driving a fancy, polluting car) – he's got one last thing he wants to say. It's about career change.

When he gives a public talk, Garcetti says, "Invariably men come up to me and say, 'I'd give anything to do what you're doing.' To me, that speaks to men not being willing to take the risk to make a substantial career change. They're afraid of falling on their face. They may hate the jobs they're doing, but they make good money, or they've got status, or whatever it is.

"I really want to encourage them to pursue the passions that they have," he continues. "If you think you don't have one, dig down, you've got a passion someplace. And you can be productive with that passion. We're all living so much longer than we used to. You don't have to look at dying between 65 and 70 years of age. That's middle age.

"Be productive. You can. You can."

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