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When a Photo Isn't Worth a Thousand Words

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The Space Shuttle Endeavour's path is temporarily blocked by a tree as the shuttle is transported through the streets on its final journey to its permanent museum home on October 13, 2012 in Inglewood. | Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)<br />
The Space Shuttle Endeavour's path is temporarily blocked by a tree as the shuttle is transported through the streets on its final journey to its permanent museum home on October 13, 2012 in Inglewood. | Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

I have to confess, I didn't join in the two-day festivities that attended the space shuttle Endeavour on its recent snail's-pace trek from the airport to its destination at the California Space Center near USC. As I wrote in an earlier post, I was far too miffed about the hundreds of trees in Inglewood and South Central that were flattened -- in alarmingly short order -- over the summer in order to make the whole street event possible. Now that the champagne's been popped, the shuttle has landed, and everybody's gone home, the six-mile median along Manchester running from Airport Boulevard to Crenshaw Drive in Inglewood is totally bare, one pretty depressing sight among others that will last a whole lot longer than two days. Talk about a hangover.

That said, I didn't have anything against people's enthusiasm for the arrival of the shuttle itself. I was glad that locals turned out in droves, lining the streets and piling on tops of roofs on a blazing afternoon to watch a bit of scientific history passing through their midst. I'm glad that in this culture of celebrity gawking and top-this technology, people seemed truly wonderstruck by the sight of an inanimate object that, for all its size, was really nothing fancy and more than a little beat up. I was glad that our sense of imagination and possibility is still stirred by something other than the prospect of the next smart phone.


The photo that ran on the front-page of the L.A. Times can also be seen in their blog, Framework, here. | Screenshot: Framework/L.A. Times/

The photo that ran on the front-page of the L.A. Times can also be seen in their blog, Framework, here. | Screenshot: Framework/L.A. Times/

But none of that feeling was reflected in the front-page photo the L.A. Times ran on Oct. 14, the day after the event. Prominently featured in the shot was not the shuttle, but two black boys nonchalantly shooting hoops in their backyard as the enormous shuttle rolled by in the background. A funny contrast, I thought at first. Kind of irresistible for a lead picture. But when I read the coverage and realized how much genuine interest and good will there had been toward the shuttle's arrival, I got annoyed. The photo of two young black men playing basketball, totally indifferent to everything else -- I could imagine that same photo with a wildfire burning behind these guys -- not only misrepresented the event, it reinforced a stereotypical notion that black youth care chiefly about sports, with things like science way off the radar. True, there were smaller shots inside the paper of the parade throngs, but they had nowhere near the impact of that cover image. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a cover shot is worth more than fifty satellites; like the headline of a story, it sets the tone.

Two people I know who were equally annoyed by the basketball photo were Hal and Bettye Walker, who run the African-American Male Achievers Network (AMAN) and the International Science Discovery and Learning Center on La Brea Avenue in Inglewood. Hal is a scientist and inventor who helped design lunar ranging equipment used in the first moonwalk in 1969; his contributions are documented in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Bettye is a veteran educator and administrator who founded A-MAN as a way to actively counter the crisis of academic and social achievement among black males in L.A. schools. Together the Walkers have successfully run the after-school science center, which introduces students to science and space technology, for over 20 years. The Endeavour event was a natural for their outfit, and they were among the key speakers at the big rally held in the Forum parking lot, the shuttle's main stop. Present at the rally were lots of very excited kids from the Science Center and elsewhere. Where, the Walkers asked me, were those pictures?

If they were taken, they didn't make the cut at the Times, the paper of record. So here is one. For the record.

Photo: Courtesy Bettye Walker
Photo: Courtesy Bettye Walker

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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