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A photographer’s affecting portrait of Korean American seniors, fearful amid anti-Asian violence

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Koreatown, an area of Los Angeles with many Korean Americans, can be a very difficult place to report. A journalist might spend a day just trying to get on-the-record interviews.

That isn’t because Koreans don’t want to share their stories or be accommodating. Many just have hesitancy when it comes to speaking to the press. That makes what Los Angeles-based photographer Jae Hong pulled off that much more impressive: an intimate look, in both images and words, at older Korean Americans who are fearful in the wake of attacks on Asians in the U.S. during the pandemic.

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A sign from a recent rally against anti-Asian hate crimes is displayed in the apartment of Jen Ho Lee, a 76-year-old South Korean immigrant, in Los Angeles, March 31, 2021. – AP Photo / Jae C. Hong

Hong started thinking of this story after completing a year-long assignment in Tokyo. When the 2020 Olympics were canceled, he returned to Los Angeles earlier than expected. Back in the U.S., Hong, a Korean American who had moved to LA as a teenager, was astonished by the increased aggression he saw toward Asian Americans, who were being broadly blamed by some for COVID-19.

Among his many other assignments, Hong began looking closely at the Korean community in Los Angeles. Then, a mass shooting in Atlanta in mid-March, which left eight people dead, including six Asian women, pushed him to speed up his timeline. He decided to focus on older Koreans, some of the most cautious and hesitant when it comes to the press. After much outreach and many conversations, he found a few families willing to let him into their lives.

Hong’s images, dark and somber, capture the fear that many Asian Americans feel in the wake of many attacks. At the same time, his text captures both their current fears and the memories that many Korean Americans in LA still have of the 1992 riots that broke out after the acquittal of police officers who beat Black motorist Rodney King. Arson and looting spread into Koreatown as tensions between Black protesters and Korean residents and shop owners came to the fore.

Hong, who has begun writing for some of his stories, worked on the text with LA reporter Brian Melley and U.S. enterprise editor Anna Jo Bratton. He also worked closely with West deputy director for storytelling Stephanie Mullen on his photo selection, and then with Top Stories Hub photo editor Alyssa Goodman on the presentation.

The end result is a compelling portrait of a community experiencing very real fear amid increasing attacks on Asians. During a very busy week with the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial,Hong’s piece got wide use in the U.S. and beyond,including in U.S. News & World Report,Al-Jazeera and The Seattle Times.

For timely,revealing enterprise reporting in both text and photos, Jae Hong wins this week’s Best of the States award.

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