By Essdras M Suarez
Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist
The short answer for me is no.
No, I don’t believe we should be actively involved in the identifying of perpetrators. Nor should we be expected to voluntarily hand over our images to the authorities. For that is not the job of a photojournalist. Now, if the photos after being published, purchased, or subpoenaed, are then used for such purpose. Well, then that is another story altogether.
But before you make up your mind about my way of thinking allow me to put it within the context of the January 6th events in DC and explain my point of view. One that has been forged by decades of experience on the field as a photojournalist covering all sorts of stories including war/ conflict, and riots.
On this day, I arrived at the US Capitol a bit after confrontations between rioters and US Capitol law enforcement officers had already started. While I photographed some people scaling the side of the building, I had the chance to assess my options.
Now that I am a freelancer, I still live by the belief that as an independent photojournalist my actions should be ruled by the exact same ethical responsibilities as that of a staff photographer for one of the big media outlets. And that is exactly what I did on January 6th the day the US Capitol was attacked and breached. I documented the actions for the sake of documenting history but never with the idea in mind that I was making photos to be used to identify assailants.
I could tell right away it’d be almost impossible to get to the western door where the main clashes were occurring without having to push my way up the stairs and through a mass of unmasked people. So, I made the tactical decision to go up on the scaffolding to the right of these doors. I figured there was a good chance this high vantage viewpoint might offer me a clearer look of what was going on below.
As I made my way through the crowd, I was eyeballed hard by many but only a couple engaged me in conversation. Perhaps this has to do more with the fact I am a 6-foot tall guy who weighs 215lb who also happened to have been wearing a Kevlar helmet with the word “PRESS” stenciled in white letters, a bulletproof vest, a pair of knuckle- worn black tactical gloves, a camera bag, three cameras, and a teargas mask strapped to his leg.
Those whom did approach me mostly wanted to know who I worked for and what were my thoughts on what was going on. My answer was the same all three times, “Whatever the reasons behind what is going on here right now. This is a historic event and I am here to document it and that’s that.” They all seemed satisfied with my answer.
But as I walked through them, and I climbed up the first set of barricades they had placed sideways to use as ladders. The tension level became a palpable thing as I got closer to the area being contended above me.
Instead of going straight up, I veered right towards the scaffolding and proceeded to climb. On the way up the stairs, I saw several people having to stop to catch their breath while on their way up themselves. That alone is one of several reasons I am surprised there were such few casualties among those in the crowd on that day.
I saw people who did not have the physical prowess to attempt any of the things they were attempting on that day, i.e. climb the side of the building. The kind of things they simply had no business even trying to accomplish.
I remember training my camera on an apparent middle-age man wearing jeans and a grey hoodie scooting down the handrail of a set of stairs as others tried to climb straight up from below him. As the stairs were packed with people shoulder to shoulder. I remember thinking, all it’d take for that guy to fall is for someone in the crowd to sneeze and the resulting expanding wave of motion would eventually cause someone to lean out and push this guy down.
Once, I found a perch with a direct line of sight to the chaos below, and after several minutes of photographing the scene, I got to thinking.
I couldn’t believe how brazen some of these unmasked people bashing windows with sticks and bats seemed completely unperturbed by the fact, they were clearly identifiable.
I put on a teleconverter on my telephoto lens so I could get tighter shots and what I saw now a lot closer: the clashes, the pepper spraying, the flash grenades, the bats, the hockey sticks, the guy using a crutch to hit US Capitol police officers over their shields. It all left me in disbelief. I have seen situations like this before in other parts of the world, but never did I think I’d see this in the bosom of the cradle of democracy, the United States Capitol.
Exactly because of such wanton violence is the reason why I believe you should never make a photo for the sole purpose of later helping authorities identify the perpetrators.
When you, a photojournalist, are out there working alone and suddenly finds a hostile situation – anarchy, violence, chaos – people can suddenly turn on you: Who are you? Who do you work for?
In that moment you need to know with 100 percent certainty, you can answer with the purest form of the truth: You are an impartial journalist, there to document. Anything else can become your undoing and put you at risk.
This truth should exist in your mind above anything else without any innuendos or hints where you might even be tempted in the slightest to create material for the use of the identification of attackers.
In that instance of confrontation, you need to be able to know deep in your soul you are simply there to be an eyewitness and recorder of history. And most importantly, you are there to be the representative to the masses in-absentia
The only thing that gives you the certainty of purpose, the gravitas to carry such role is that you do not harbor any doubts of what your purpose is in such scenario.
At no time should the journalist even flirt with the idea of creating a photo for the sole purpose of identifying the wrongdoers. For that would be the equivalent of a journalist deciding to carry a weapon while covering a conflict. In the eyes of the observer, that might simply look as if you’ve decided to pick a side; thus, making you their perceived enemy.