By a fluke of circumstance, I happened to be in St. Louis during some of the protests happening in Ferguson, Missouri. My family had been on vacation for the prior two weeks with my in-laws. My father-in-law wanted a nice family portrait that I was to be included in. Normally when I go on vacation, I travel very light camera-wise, usually taking only a body and lens and a laptop. This time, however, I decided to bring my whole kit since it would be easier to have all the necessary equipment on-hand and not piecemeal and potentially forget something crucial.
My wife, a health and science reporter, was to attend a fellowship in Columbia, Missouri immediately following our vacation. She's a St. Louis native, so the plan was for her to go to Mizzou while I stayed behind with our daughter so she could get extra time for a week with her grandparents.
While we were on vacation, I could see that things were really heating up 20 minutes from my in-laws home in St. Louis. I thought to myself that surely things will have cooled down by the time I got there. When we eventually arrived in St. Louis, my wife took off for Columbia and I called a family friend to come by and watch our daughter (my in-laws weren't back yet) while I went to explore the situation in Ferguson. I naively told the family friend that I expected to be back in an hour or so and that at this point, it was probably just going to be people marching up and down W. Florissant Avenue, holding signs and marching. I even opted to only bring a little film camera I own. I figured I'll experiment and then go home.
What I didn't realize was that things were far from calm. While things were peaceful enough when I got there, they deteriorated within about an hour and a half. The word on the street was that some people had decided to march toward the police command center about a half-mile from where many protestors and media were stationed. The next thing I knew, canisters of tear gas, smoke bombs, flash-bang grenades and lastly, rubber bullets, came flying down the street.
I found a gaggle of other photojournalists to group up with, most of them decked out in gear that I didn't have - tactical helmets, gas masks and flak jackets. I was standing on the curb trying to frame up a shot when I felt something hit my arm and it hurt like a thousand expletives. I instantly recoiled and ran back, zig-zagging, into a parking lot. I thought to myself "Holy sh*t! What the hell was THAT?" My arm started swelling up immediately. I was full of adrenaline and kept trying to make pictures, armed with a film camera with 400 speed film pushed to 3200 and one 35mm prime lens. It felt like futility. The cops kept pushing everyone back and their approach was overwhelming. As I came within about 500 yards from my car, I heard shattering glass. Groups of men were starting to loot a Papa John's Pizza on one side of the road and a pharmacy on the side of the road I was on. I looked around and noticed I was the only media left at this point and that things were getting very, very hairy. I made it back to my car, but only after being faced down by an approaching armored vehicle surrounded by soldier-y looking men with flashlights on their rifles, approaching my general vicinity. Hands up, I crab-walked away from them, made it to my car and then headed out when there was a break in the rush of people running by.
The next day, I made phone calls around town to find out about purchasing at the very least, a tactical helmet and hopefully a gas mask. The first place I called said they had sold out of helmets after last night's melee. Another place said they only had four helmets and were holding them for CNN. After what could be a whole other blog post just about getting last minute protective riot gear, I came away with a very used kevlar helmet and a Serbian gas mask with a dried out filter element. Still not on assignment for anyone, I went out the next night to try again, this time with my digital gear. The night was intense, but not as intense as the prior night. There was some tear gas used (hence discovering that the filter element in my Serbian gas mask was compromised) but by the time I got to where some shooting at the police had taken place, things had calmed down, at least by the strange standards of the protests.
The next day, I was contacted by friend and NPR supervising editor Kainaz Amaria asking if I'd like to shoot a two-day assignment for Gene Demby, who runs the Code Switch blog at NPR. The interesting element is that she was looking for photos that showed a sense of place and not so interested in protest pictures, images of which had already saturated the media. I was very game and spent the next two days with Gene going off the beaten path throughout Ferguson, not just the scenes of the protest but neighborhoods and the downtown area.
It was good to get away from the protests and explore Ferguson from another perspective. It was definitely work that was in my wheel-house and Kainaz's great editing helped focus my efforts. You can check out the final product at Code Switch here. Some of my favorite images from the assignment are below.