Photojournalist Ken Hawkins reflects on San Salvador massacre, Jonestown and his work to use photography to combat poverty

The dead, shot by federal soldiers, are laid out on the santuary floor of the San Salvador Metro Cathedral. The dead and dying were dragged inside the sanctuary from the steps of the church where they were shot.

By Stacy Brownhill, Staff Writer

In today’s media landscape, writers can get away with reporting battles from afar. But conflict zone photojournalists have no such luxury. Action is their shop floor. Armed with cameras, these men and women don’t just capture scenes of bullets and bloodshed, they live them. Last year, more than 100 journalists were killed on the job, according to the International Press Institute; two renowned photojournalists, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, were killed last month in Misrata, Libya.

Portland’s Ken Hawkins was a conflict zone journalist. At 61, Hawkins is quiet and still as he unravels his memories amidst a swarm of black and white negatives. Through his camera lenses, Hawkins captured the Vietnam War in 1970, the Jonestown mass suicide in 1978, the Sandinista Insurrection in Nicaragua from 1977 to 1979, the massacre at Metropolitan Cathedral in El Salvador in 1979, and other historically explosive events. He has worked for TIME, Newsweek and Wired, and has been a member of prestigious agencies such as SYGMA and the American Society of Media Photographers. In the calm of his Lake Oswego home, it’s hard to imagine Hawkins running through gunfire; but he did, and he photographed it.

Hawkins returns this week to the site of one of his grisliest photo-shoots: Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador, El Salvador. Thirty-two years ago, Hawkins was on special assignment in San Salvador for Paris Match, covering the hostage taking of a French ambassador who was being held by the People’s Revolutionary Bloc (BPR), a left-wing guerilla group. Unexpectedly, he ended up witnessing a massacre when police opened fire on a peaceful BPR demonstration outside Metropolitan Cathedral on May 9, 1979. Twenty-four people were killed on the Cathedral steps, many were wounded, and Hawkins himself barely escaped.

Six months before the San Salvador massacre, Hawkins had descended upon Jonestown to cover the mass suicide of more than 900 people for Newsweek. The Cincinnati-born, Atlanta-grown, Portland migrant (and Street Roots volunteer and board member) describes the San Salvador massacre and Jonestown suicides with remarkable candidness. He also discusses the similarities he sees in the recent Arab Spring, disheartening trends in journalism and his online gallery projects — 52Selects.com and EverySecondChild.org.

Stacy Brownhill: Describe the massacre in San Salvador at Metropolitan Cathedral.

Ken Hawkins: I was 29 years old. Paris Match had hired me, because of my experience with long lenses, to cover the hostage taking of Michel Dondenne at the French Embassy in San Salvador. No one was sure if Dondenne was even alive, but I got a picture of him through a window. After that, Paris Match wanted sidebars on BPR (the guerrilla group holding Dondenne). BPR was holding a demonstration at Metropolitan Cathedral, so I decided to cover it.

Massacre on the Steps of the San Salvador, El Salvador Metropolitan Cathedral on May 8, 1979

It was a beautiful day. Vendors were selling tamales in the square by the Cathedral, government workers were eating lunch in the park and protestors — mostly youth — were reciting speeches to the crowd. Yellow balloons were everywhere, in support of the demonstration. I was there with two other reporters from Associated Press and United Press International. It was high noon.

Ken Hawkins

I saw two groups of soldiers in riot gear coming around either side of the Cathedral, sealing it off. I felt all the hairs rise on my back and I knew something was wrong. My antennas were still up from reporting in Nicaragua. I grabbed the other two reporters — one of them was reluctant — and said, ‘we have to go.’ We were halfway across the square when I heard shooting and the soldiers opened fire. We kept dashing away, in between cars, shooting film as we went. There was no time to be scared.

I remember blood coming down the steps. A pregnant woman got hit. A number were wounded. There were people crawling over dead bodies to get inside the Cathedral for protection. The soldiers sealed off the area for 24 hours, and the smell in that confined space was tremendous. It was a violent, inhumane message to the people and BPR saying “you are not going to unseat our government.”

There were conflicting reports afterwards. I was one of the few neutral observers. I heard the command to fire, but the government’s version was that soldiers had been fired upon and lawfully returned fire. Not to muddy the waters, but it could have been a balloon popping that sounded like a shot. A newsreel cameraman from a major station got a picture of a demonstrator with a pistol in his hand, and that lent support to the government’s version of events. But it was not unusual in Central America back then to carry a pistol.

The government had a press liaison person come to see me at the Camino Royal. He wasn’t at the massacre, but he tried to tell me what happened. He told me that perhaps I didn’t hear correctly. I was 25 yards away. I heard correctly.

S.B.: Are you looking forward to going back to San Salvador for the memorial event?

K.H.: It will be a chance to close some doors and open others. We will be opening a museum Saturday, May 28, to commemorate and memorialize political struggle in Central and South America.

S.B.: So many foreign news offices have shut down. Do you think a reporter would have been on those steps in San Salvador today?

K.H.: If the massacre had happened today, there would have been bloggers from both sides and then a reporter to report what the bloggers were saying. That’s the way it is, but it’s unfortunate for the Truth with a capital “T” because bloggers can’t be expected to hold up the same kind of ethical standards. Everybody has opinions, but the idea of professional reporting is to manage that opinion and a great majority of bloggers do not.

Even though there will never be a clear cut version of the San Salvador massacre, the fact that international journalists were there was probably enough to tip the truth. That picture of a demonstrator with a pistol could have defined the story, but we were there to share our side.

S.B.: The San Salvador demonstration and the others during that period bring to mind the democratic, youth-led protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Jordan. What similarities do you see in this Arab Spring?

K.H.: The Arab Spring has proven that bloggers are better than no reporters at all. Bloggers are catalysts prompting international media to stay on the stories. What I don’t like is how international media offices are just quoting bloggers, instead of having a reporter on the ground. But that’s the economy now.

The Arab Spring is also a young revolution, just like Central America was. That was a time when revolutionary kids were feeling their oats, and it’s happening now in the Middle East.

S.B.: Describe your experience covering Jonestown, the cult “Kool-Aid” mass suicide led by Jim Jones.

K.H.: I went in with a team from Newsweek the evening after the suicides. All I was told was that a congressman had been murdered in Guyana. I didn’t even know where Guyana was. As it turns out, besides Congressman Leo Ryan, two of my photographer friends had been killed — Bob Brown of NBC and Greg Robinson of the San Francisco Examiner. It was horrible.

Some of the people had been shot. Some had hypodermic needles hanging out of their arms and legs. Jonestown was not a mass suicide. It started out as an induced suicide, but when people saw that others were actually dying, many tried to get away and were stopped by security forces. Some were able to hide in the jungle. Hyacinth Thrash was an African-American lady that I met who had gone to the bathroom, fallen asleep and woken up to everybody dead. You can’t make that kind of stuff up.

We took photos of the bodies, photos of the People’s Temple in Georgetown and photos of Jonestown. When I saw Jim Jones’s body in the pavilion, he had one small caliber bullet behind his ear. That couldn’t have been self-inflicted (as the coroner eventually concluded).

S.B.: Journalists, like you, risk their lives all the time reporting in protests and conflict zones. What kind of toll does that take?

K.H.: It’s a noble thing: conflict journalism. Day after day of finding the truth with cameras. I was short-lived. I don’t know how career conflict journalists handle it. For years, I didn’t realize that I had post-traumatic stress disorder.

Adrenaline plays a big part. Camaraderie with friends. You’re sitting around at home and people you know are reporting in the Middle East and you just want to be there. You want to be in the action. It’s perverse to crave conflict, but I was drawn to it. Readers won’t always believe a story’s words, but most of the time they’ll believe the pictures.

S.B.: What are you working on now?

K.H.: I started two websites: 52Selects.com and EverySecondChild.org. 52Selects is a collection of affordable, original prints from lots of great photojournalists. EverySecondChild spotlights the efforts of committed photojournalists around the world who document the issue of child poverty. We’re trying to be a visual catalyst to help tackle that number.

Nine year old Santiago Dominguez returns to the shambles of his family home outside of La Pesca, Mexico, after his impoverished family survived a category two hurricane. Santiago left his home to try to find the family's eighty chickens which had been blown away by the high winds. Two dead laying hens were all he returned with.

S.B.: What inspired EverySecondChild.org?

K.H.: I was in Guatemala in the mid-1970’s when an earthquake killed about 24,000 people. When I got there, they were still digging through the rubble. Many of the survivors were children because they are small and resilient and could fit in the cavities of walls. Many of the children were orphaned. There was one little girl who was rescued by her neighbors and the only thing she had was the shirt on her back. The neighbors were trying to find other survivors, and the girl kept crawling away, so they put her in this wooden box. And there she was, half-dressed, crying her eyes out, covered in dirt, and condemned to a life of poverty. I often wonder what happened to her.

S.B.: What is your mission of EverySecondChild.org?

K.H.: My hope is to present folks, especially in various faith communities in North America, with a way to engage in the issue of child poverty around the world. Photojournalists put up their images and stories, and then there are links to vetted charities, like Doctors Without Borders, where people can help with money or prayers or anyway they choose. The important thing is to become acquainted with the problem and try to find a way to help.

Another thing I want to do is connect photojournalists with nonprofits. There are amazing PR photographers who want to help NGO’s present their missions. We want to bring corporate and faith-based communities into the mix to help fund these photojournalists go into the field and get stories for these NGOs.

We just want to get everybody thinking about the subject of child poverty. They might be somber stories, but we think it’s important that everybody do a little bit and help get the word out about this enormous issue.

BIO: Ken Hawkins created EverySecondChild.org to highlight the work photojournalists are doing in the area of child poverty. Hawkins says he created the collection of photos after covering so many stories around the world that negatively affected children. The project’s name comes from a 2005 UNICEF report that of the 2.2 billion children in the world, 1 billion live in poverty; in other words, every second child.

2 responses to “Photojournalist Ken Hawkins reflects on San Salvador massacre, Jonestown and his work to use photography to combat poverty

  1. I had the great pleasure of meeting Ken Hawkins yesterday at our studio during Portland Open Studios as we talked about a variety of things, including photography…then I looked him up on line and was amazed at the background he has, just amazing! What extraordinary work he has done, and continues to do with his two websites; 52select.com and EverySecondChild.org

  2. Tom Hudgens, Conyers, gA

    I knew Ken in a different context when he came by the fire department I worked at back in the early 80’s. He ended up being a volunteer for us as well as doing lots of action photo’s for us. he went through all the training with us and was a good man to have on our fire dept. he is a good friend who I’ve reconnected with through FB

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