Exposing a tumultuous era: Photographer Ken Light

Age of Nixon
Nixon resigns. Oakland, California, 1974. Photo: Ken Light

Drawn to documenting the burgeoning protest movement in the late 1960s, Ken Light came to photojournalism as an extension of his anti-war activism. He started by shooting marches and demonstrations, but it wasn’t until the Nixon administration’s secret bombing of Cambodia came to light in late April 1970, and campuses exploded, that he truly found his calling. Hitchhiking from Ohio State in Athens to the flagship Ohio State campus in Columbus, he captured clashes between students and the National Guard shortly before four students were killed at Kent State in similar demonstrations. Arrested despite his press credentials, Light retrieved his undeveloped film when he got out of jail, and “those photos were published in newspapers and magazines all over the world,” he says. “I was struck, you can really have a voice. I could look around at my generation and tell stories about what’s happening.”

On faculty at UC Berkeley since 1983, Light is a longtime professor at the Graduate School of Journalism and curator of the J-School’s Center for Photography (where there’s now a fantastic exhibition of work by the legendary chronicler of rock, jazz and blues musicians Jim Marshall). Over the years, he’s earned numerous awards and published books examining the lives of farm workers–With These Hands (Pilgrim Press) and To The Promised Land (Aperture); impoverished African-Americans in the deep South — Delta Time (Smithsonian Institution Press); and Appalachia — Coal Hollow (University of California Press).

Age of Nixon
Free concert, Athens, Ohio, 1969. Photo: Ken Light

Light recently launched a Kickstarter campaign that runs through March 18 to self-publish What’s Going On: America 1969-1974, a book of some 140 photos that capture the divergent forces pulling apart American society during those tumultuous years (full disclosure: a few years ago I taught Light’s course “The Journalist As Freelancer” at the Graduate School of Journalism). We recently spoke about the new project.

When did you first start thinking about creating a book from your early years?


About ten years ago I pulled out some contact sheets from the early days. It may have been when my John Kerry picture was stolen. I started going back in and really looking. The more I looked the more I found. Time is your friend in these cases. Things you casually photographed end up taking on a whole different perspective.

Age of Nixon
Cambodia invasion riot, Columbus, Ohio 1970. Photo: Ken Light

Was your activism driving your photography, or did your photography bring you to these events?

I was anti-war activist and I started making photos. That’s where it started. I kept trying to develop as a photographer, shooting political events. I started covering Appalachia, inner cities, factories, just to learn to be a photographer. I didn’t know that I had a thread of a story. It’s not like I set out to do this book, but so many interesting things happening around time in America, which ends in 1974 when Nixon resigns.

What kind of assignments were you on when you took these photos?

I was working for underground publications. Liberation News Service was distributing my pictures. I didn’t get any money, but I had outlets. The most important thing was for the work to be seen. I traveled with Nixon in 1972. I covered the return of POWs, and farm workers in California.


You’ve had books published by Aperture, UC Press, Heyday and other major houses. Why a Kickstarter campaign?

I started this my normal way. You find a publisher and you show them the work. But when I started contacting publishers they’d look at it and sort of respond, oh, the 60s, we know about this. But friends would see it and ask when are you going to do this book?

Age of Nixon
Nixon rally, inauguration, 1973. Photo: Ken Light

There’s such a sense of immediacy to the photos I’ve seen. Do you think the lack of interest from publishers is 1960s fatigue?

I don’t think this era has hit yet. We’re still in the civil rights era. All the sudden Selma’s everywhere, as it should be. There have been two New York Times spreads about photographers shooting Selma. There’s a huge cultural lag. I don’t think museums are collecting this yet. I could have waited until everyone got interested, but it didn’t make sense to keep sitting on this.

Age of Nixon
McGovern rally, S.E. Ohio, 1972. Photo: Ken Light

It’s quite a departure from your past book experiences.


Well, there’s a whole new way of operating. If you can raise the money it’s easy to find a printer and there are methods of distribution. I’d rather do that than wait for 15 years. That’s the great thing about this technology now, but it’s very nerve wracking getting to the point of pushing the button and launching the web page. It’s been really remarkable the response I’ve gotten so far.

Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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