The Algerian-born French man arrived in New York City in 1965 at the age of 30 to discover a country in the throes of transformation. He stepped into the generation of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, a time of race riots, political assassinations, and social revolutions. Jean-Pierre Laffont has a gift for being in the right place at the right time. But lacking any real funding, he watched Martin Luther King’s marches in Alabama on television. “I knew I was missing something important,” he says.
The photographer got a break in April 1967. In front of the United Nations headquarters in New York, the leader of the civil rights movement was giving a speech against the Vietnam War in which Afro-American soldiers had suffered terrible losses. Laffont captured the scene with the shadowy, menacing U.N. skyscraper reflected in Dr. King’s eyes.
A year later, the country gripped with anger and sorrow; Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Laffont flew to Atlanta and followed the procession accompanying the pastor to his final resting place. Armed National Guard soldiers flanked the march while black and white people alike brandished placards proclaiming “Honor King: End Racism.”
“The American dream seemed to be falling apart,” says the French photojournalist, who will receive the Lucie Award for Achievement in Photojournalism on October 20, 2020 for his work. He photographed activist Angela Davis at Madison Square Garden, fist raised behind a bulletproof screen, and visited the Cummins correctional facility in Arkansas. In this prison farm, the mostly black inmates toiled in the cotton fields under the watchful eye of guards on horseback. It was as though the abolition of slavery a century before had changed nothing.
Laffont then had the chance to meet the Ku Klux Klan. “Their invited me to their headquarters in Louisiana” he says. “They stood around a cross behind the building, doused it with gasoline, and set it alight while chanting songs about the supremacy of the white race. This sort of ceremony still exists today. This country is experiencing a pandemic more dramatic than Covid-19: racial hatred.”
The following images are taken from the book Photographer’s Paradise: Turbulent America 1960-1990 by Jean-Pierre Laffont, published by Glitterati Editions in 2014, and were exhibited at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris in 2015.