Protestors react as they set fire to the entrance of a police station as demonstrations continue in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, May 28, 2020 | REUTERS/Carlos Barria
After the last four years, Americans are certainly fatigued, hoping that with the new Biden presidency, that the White House will begin to challenge the status quo that continues to suppress marginalized voices and communities of color. The death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis sparked national outrage and a movement heard ‘round the world. Black Lives Matter, a movement composed of mass demonstrations and marches against systemic racism and racial inequalities became more prevalent among communities and people in the millions took to the streets to galvanize for societal change.
From one side of the spectrum, you read about how these demonstrations and marches impact the local communities, based upon an individual journalist’s accounting. But how about those who may actually be on the frontlines of reporting, such as photojournalists? As history has continued to be made with the world under lockdown, photojournalists were on the ground to bear witness, whether it was George Floyd or Brionne Taylor, or the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Organized and coordinated by Reuters’ Communications Coordinator, Erica Ascher, came an eye-opening panel discussion, “Documenting The Black Lives Matter Protests”, exploring the first-hand experiences of photojournalists as they documented Black Lives Matter protests in communities worldwide.
Panel members included Reuters Senior Photographers Leah Mills and Carlos Barria, and Reuters photojournalist Brandon Bell. After listening to their conversation, we decided to go back and select an array of photos from Reuters’ coverage of the George Floyd protests and the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
The Critical Role of Photojournalism in Documenting History
The primary focus is indeed upon humanity, and photographers have the power to capture raw and compelling moments that help to unveil the souls of those depicted. “I am here to visually clear up any misconceptions of the ‘misunderstood’,” said photographer Dee Dwyer, who is based in Washington, D.C. in an interview with NPR. “I consider myself to be the visual voice for the people. Documenting these historical times as a black photographer is extremely important for the world.”
For years, according to Dwyer, black people’s narratives have “been controlled by predominantly white people, who have been [their] oppressors.” We have spent the past four years reading news source after news source, but the power really resides in these photos being taken.
For example, take a second look at the above image, taken by Reuters photographer, Jonathan Ernst. In a recent article, Ernst described what was happening as he took this photograph:
“On this night, protesters who had gathered near the White House in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis were met by riot police firing tear gas and rubber ordnance. Protesters will frequently use the White House as a backdrop for their cause, but this was the first time I’d seen it quite like this – with maybe the world’s most recognizable façade looming behind a cloud of smoke and the silhouetted figures of protesters dodging…projectiles.”
“After meeting with some of his prominent Black supporters, the group prayed with President Trump in the Cabinet Room of the White House,” Millis described. “This photograph seemed to resonate with people.”
Evaluating Mental Health and Safety of Photographers
It’s no walk in the park, and anyone who thinks it’s a simple click of a button, is only kidding themselves.
“I took this photograph at the end of Jan. 6, 2021, a date that will now forever be remembered here in America,” Millis describes.
“Throughout that afternoon, thousands of supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump had stormed the U.S. Capitol Building, hundreds of whom had successfully breached the doors and gained access to the heart of our most important government building.
“I switched my camera bodies to the wide lens to capture the chaotic scene, making sure that the context of the Capitol was visible. This photograph was taken at the height of the explosion of one of the flash bang grenades.
“This photograph … looks like a battle scene from years past with flags and a mass of people who look almost like a small army. What stands out to me is the shadow cast by the U.S. flag on the dome from the blast, as it continues to fly above the scene.”
What the SXSW panel inspired us all to do, is take a second or third glance at these incredibly powerful and telling stories that are depicted in the photographs we take for granted online each day.
To all of you at Reuters, thank you for your hard work and mental stamina in documenting history that defines us as a society.
True Hollywood Talk is accredited media for the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.