Sarah Van Buskirk
The Los Angeles chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists honored Ben Camacho, a freelance documentary photographer, investigative journalist at KnockLA and University of La Verne alumnus, on Wednesday night at the association’s 47th annual Distinguished Journalist Awards event.
The event was held at The Omni Hotel in Los Angeles, which was filled with journalists across platforms from LAist public radio to the Los Angeles Times.
Camacho graduated from the University in 2018 with a bachelor of arts in journalism, and he worked as a freelance documentary photographer before joining KnockLA, an independent non profit online news outlet, as an investigative journalist in April 2022. He is currently the photo editor for KnockLA and oversees the photojournalism department.
Among some of the work Camacho has done as a freelance documentary photographer are photos of asylum seekers at the United States and Mexican border where they were tear gassed by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He also covered Los Angeles riots and protests in 2020.
In April 2022 after joining KnockLA, Camacho published a story on police officers of the Santa Ana Police Department that seemed like a gang-like group who sexually assaulted a child. Since then he has written multiple follow-up stories regarding the topic and what has been done.
Earlier this year Camacho was sued by the city of Los Angeles in an effort to prevent him from publishing photos and names of Los Angeles Police Department officers.
Camacho said watching how the system reacts to his work is what keeps him going and makes him believe that journalism is what he should be doing.
“If I’m getting sued by the government, I’m getting put on the federal watch lists for taking pictures of people at the border,” Camacho said. “That’s because I’m doing work that people are seeing, but at its core it is like holding power to account, and I think it’s core journalism.”
Camacho co-founded West Side Storytellers, a documentary production team, at the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020.
Camacho said he and a friend went outside when the world was telling everyone to stay inside because they wanted to capture the working class perspective of COVID-19. During that time they worked with grocery store workers and food banks who were working overtime as essential workers.
“Starting that documentary work really just opened my eyes to what life was really like on the streets of L.A.,” Camacho said. “It really gave me the freedom to talk about the different things that are important to me.”
Camacho is also chair of the legal committee for the Freelance Journalist Union, which works to provide legal support for journalists all over the world.
Cerise Castle, managing editor for KnockLA, introduced Camacho when he received his award by explaining that it has been wonderful to work with Camacho since he emailed her about the story he was working on regarding the Santa Ana Police Department.
She talked about the work Camacho has done as an investigative reporter, and how his work has led his life to being threatened, which caused them to put a security system at his home.
“Ben is probably one of my favorite people to work with,” Castle said. “He is a staunch defender of press freedom and an advocate of underrepresented voices and historically marginalized groups, which is so essential in this industry. He is ambitious and a hard worker.”
The night began with a cocktail hour where journalists mingled and networked with colleagues and new faces.
The doors opened at 7 p.m. and guests were met with the first course of their meal.
SPJ’s Los Angeles Chapter President Alexi Chidbachian, a producer at FOX 11 Los Angeles, commenced the ceremony by talking about the important work SPJ does, and honored journalists who have passed on duty or experienced hardship on the job.
Chidbachian gave a sincere thanks and shouted out the sponsors of the event, including LAist, the Los Angeles Times, the Southern California News Group, Cal State Northridge journalism department and Santa Monica College journalism department.
Ashanti Blaize-Hopkins, the new national president of the Society of Professional Journalists after being the Los Angeles chapter president, took the stage and said how impactful it is to be a journalist in this climate.
“There have been opportunities and more attacks against our industry, against free press,” Blaize-Hopkins said. “At this point we have to fight, we have to ensure the sustainability of our work, if journalism goes away, democracy is not far behind.”
Frank Mottek, host of “Mottek On Money” business news on 790 KABC in Los Angeles, was the MC for the night and honored the current students and the younger generation of journalists entering the industry during this challenging time. Mottek said the SPJ chapter raises $10,000 annually for student scholarships
The Keynote speaker, Ken White, First Amendment litigator and criminal defense attorney, moved the ceremony forward with an emphasis of keeping the magnitude of the First Amendment strong.
The honorees were announced and presented their awards for categories including broadcast, audio, small and large print, digital and visual news outlets.
The honorees included Michaela Pereira, host of FOX 11’s Good Day LA; Paul Glickman, who recently retired after working for KPCC/LAist; Patt Morrison, two-time Pulitzer prize winning journalist; Gwen Muranaka, senior editor of the bilingual Japanese newspaper The Rafu Shimpo; Camacho; Dean Musgrove, photo editor for multiple publications within the Southern California News Group.
Dinner and dessert was served throughout the event.
“We have to show that journalism matters not just to other journalists, but to the community,” Morrison said. “The people who may not read us are ridiculed, but they’re the beneficiaries of what it is that we do every day.”
Sarah Van Buskirk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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