Covering Protest in Ferguson: “they’re not fooling around down here”

David Carson has been a newspaper photographer for more than 25 years, and he’s been covering the protests over the killing of Michael Brown since August 10th, the day the 18-year-old was shot by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri.

“I arrived at the scene where the police had shot the boy- I guess he’s a man, he was 18- I arrived at the scene as the police were washing the blood off the street,” said Carson. “This is history. This is something that people are going to talk to their grandkids about. It’s important to have a visual record of what actually happened here.”

We asked him some questions about photographing the historical protests taking place in his community, and his advice for young photographers covering protests for the first time.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

Columbia Visuals: What are the reactions from the protestors and police to journalists? 

David Carson: It’s varied, on both sides. I’ve run into some incredibly helpful and good police officers who are certainly doing their jobs, who are helpful and interested in protecting me and making sure I’m safe, and there are police officers who are more interested in not having any cameras around at all, and ordering me out of scenes and threatening me with arrest.

[With protestors] it’s also very similar, you run into some protestors who are really, very, very, very happy you’re there and they want you to document this and they feel it’s an important piece of history that’s going on.

And then you have other protestors, like who I ran into on Saturday night, who chased me down, and struck me in the head, knocked me to the ground, really wanted to do me harm. There was another gentleman out in the protest who helped me, and helped to get those guys away from me.

CV: What is the behavior of the media like right now in Ferguson?

DC: You know I haven’t been paying a lot of attention to what the other media people are doing because I’m so immersed in it. I’ve seen some excellent work produced by some of my coworkers. Robert Cohen at the [St. Louis] Post-Dispatch has made some amazing pictures. Laurie Skrivan, another one of our photographers at the Post-Dispatch, made these great pictures of the community coming together to clean up stuff.

I think Robert and Laurie are two local photojournalists who really care about the community. They’re not just coming in to document the conflict, but they’re interested in documenting the community instead of the conflict. It encourages me, the way the Post-Dispatch has been covering this. I’ve also seen some fine work by Whitney Curtis, who’s freelancing for the New York Times.

CV: This is your community. Do you feel like Ferguson is being portrayed accurately?

DC: I’ve been driving down to the scene where the conflicts have been taking place and I’ve been kind of thinking, ‘You know, wouldn’t it be nice to make some kind of picture that would contradict all this violence?’ Because Ferguson isn’t just about these protestors. It’s a small area of the city that is experiencing this violence. So I really wanted to make that picture like that. I have not seen something like that made directly.

I think Laurie Skrivan’s photos that she made of the community cleaning up are wonderful for that. It shows the flip side of this- there are good people who really care about their community and don’t want this. Last night, when the police started firing all the tear gas canisters and the protesters started running around and things got chaotic and unsafe, there were a group of people on their front porch and I asked them if I could take shelter in their house and they were very accommodating and very welcoming to me, and I stayed in their house for several hours until things felt safe.

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David Carson’s Twitter picture with the Ferguson residents who gave him shelter during the protests Aug 13th.

They wanted to take a picture with me and we tweeted it out. And on that tweet I said, ‘The good people of Ferguson.’  They gave me water, they gave me shelter. There are more people like that in Ferguson than there are people that want to have a lot of conflict.

CV: Do you have advice for visual journalists who are covering a protest for the first time?

DC: I think it depends on the level of protest. I’ve received several inquiries from students who are interested in coming out here and my advice is: they’re not fooling around down here. This is not a game that’s taking place right now.

There are people here with guns and stuff. If you come here, you should come prepared. You should be ready to leave the scene if you feel like things become too intense. I think it’s very easy to get sucked up into the excitement of it, but there’s not a picture you could make out here that would be worth being hurt for. I think that you have to be aware of what your surroundings are. If you’re not familiar with that scene, you may not want to come into something as dynamically changing as this scene is.

This is Part 1 of three posts about Covering Protest in Ferguson. You can read about Salima Koroma of  Time here, and Brent McDonald of the New York Times here.

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