Photographs taken by intrepid photojournalists and documentary photographers have been informing the public and galvanizing people to take action on social issues for over one hundred years. The disturbing images coming out of the recent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia are a powerful reminder of how much impact an image can have, and how much responsibility a photographer bears when telling a story.
During the weekend of August 11th, a group of White Nationalists gathered in Charlottesville as part of a rally dubbed “Unite the Right,” carrying Confederate flags and swastikas chanting, “you will not replace us,” to protest the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park, formerly Lee Park. Counter-protesters gathered to condemn the white supremacist rally and it wasn’t long before violence broke out, leaving many people injured and one woman dead when a car later plowed into a group of counter protesters.
When you read descriptions of the event, the news articles, and firsthand accounts, it leaves you with a grim picture of what happens when fear and prejudice go unchecked. But when you see the imagery captured by photographers on the scene, the truth of what happened in Charlottesville over the weekend is brought home in vivid, visceral detail.
Humans, being visual creatures, respond to imagery at an unconscious level. When words might be forgotten or thrust away, images are not so easy to forget because our emotions respond to visual stimuli almost immediately, locking them into our memories. This puts documentary photographers is a powerful position, acting as the recording eyes that will set events down in history, but also a dangerous one, subjected to violence and searing hatred the human spirit is capable of.
In circumstances like the one in Virginia, photographers are capturing defining moments in American history, but they aren't immune from the emotional trauma of what they witness. Photojournalist Ryan Kelly was on assignment in downtown Charlottesville for The Daily Progress when he captured the graphic image of the car that took the life of a thirty-two-year-old Charlottesville native. In an interview given to The Columbia Journalism Review, Kelly explains how he is processing the event.
A person died, a lot of people were injured, people were in shock, a community has been terrorized. It’s a town that I love. I’m more focused on the fact that it was a horrible day. I happened to be at the place at the time it happened, and I did my job. I’m proud of my newspaper for doing a good job, but I haven’t thought about the impact of the photo. I know that it’s everywhere. I’ve had to cut off Twitter notifications, and my email inbox has exploded. I am glad people have seen it. It was a terrible thing and the fact that more people will be more aware of it happening is an overall positive, but I can’t say I’m happy to have been there.
The photographs coming out the protests in Virginia are a stark reminder of this country’s divided history, and a warning sign for our future, urging us not to repeat the mistakes of the past.