Poking A Moment That’s Passed
Revisiting the sequence of events that yielded the “flamethrower” photograph in Charlottesville
There was a moment in Charlottesville when an iconic photograph was made, and for the last two weeks I haven’t been able to shake it from my mind. This past weekend, thanks to a piece in the New York Times, the photograph flared-up again into national consciousness.
I wanted to put a stake in a few issues surrounding the moment, try to look deeper at how the story (and scene) has been reported, and how, even two weeks later, its meaning has a slipperiness, as if refusing its own history.
The photograph’s location. Innocuous enough. Eight steps up into the park.
I’ve never been to Charlottesville, but you get the feeling there are plenty of stories about those steps (and the park) that befit a certain kind of college town.
And yet, the steps have now acted as both stage and proscenium for two visually powerful moments; the one captured in Helber’s photo, and a second, captured on video, offering a more elongated view of the scene that enveloped the making of Helber’s photograph.
Knowledge of the existence of these two things — a photo, and a video which shows the moment in which the photo was made, was revealed over the course of two weeks. In our instant-on, streamable Now, it took a surprisingly long time to publicly connect these two pieces of media.
But back to the photo.
At 10:51AM on Saturday, August 12th, Steve Helber, based in Virginia and photographing for the Associated Press, stepped forward with his Canon EOS-1D X and took a photograph. Ten minutes later, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe would declare a state of emergency.
Here’s the moment when Helber photographed the flame & flag. (A photographer is visible from this angle, wearing a hat. According to Steve Helber, that is not him — he was further to the right.)
Sometime after 1pm, Helber’s photograph “hit the wire” (surely an anachronism by now) and was published all over. Chicago Tribune hosted it as part of a gallery of images (31/42) on that day, and other outlets highlighted Helber’s photo too, but with all the pictures of the Heather Heyer car attack (which happened later in the day, around 1:30PM) Helber’s picture wasn’t the #1 talked about photograph from the protests in Charlottesville.
On the Monday following the protest, Doreen St. Felix wrote insightfully about Helber’s photograph for NewYorker.com, comparing it to a painting (as one often does to contextualize — and legitimize — great photography) while placing it alongside its historical antecedents.
While St. Felix was eloquent about the photo itself, especially the formalized elegance of the counter-protestor, there were facts that still needed to be filled-in.
Earlier that same day, Yesha Callahan published a piece for The Root where she interviewed Corey Long, the counter-protestor in Helber’s photograph, in which Long describes not just how he made his flamethrower, but what figuratively (and literally) sparked it.
“At first it was peaceful protest,” Long said softly as he spoke. “Until someone pointed a gun at my head. Then the same person pointed it at my foot and shot the ground.”
When I read this two weeks ago, it made me sit up straight. It was the first reporting I’d seen that there’d been gunfire at Emancipation Park. Soon after, Long appeared on CNN with Don Lemon for this interview:
“There was a white supremacist, and he actually pointed a gun at us while we were standing there, and there was an elderly white guy who was standing there and was scared, and when he shot the gun that’s when I used the spray paint and the lighter to make the flames.”
“First he pointed it at my head, then he shot it at the ground.”
It’s harrowing. And it’s true, nearly.
Long was in an intense, high-pressure situation, battling for his own safety and the safety of others against out-of-state white supremacists who’d descended on his hometown. But two weeks later, when the New York Times published a video of the gunshot Long describes, the sequence of events didn’t mesh with Long’s recollection, or his stated reasoning for using the spray can.
Long claims the supremacist shot the gun first, and that’s what led him to “make the flames.” But that’s not what the video shows.
The gunman draws his pistol at nearly the same moment when Long lights the flames. He aims in the direction of Long, at head hight, and then appears to release the safety (a comment above informs me he was chambering a round) before firing toward the low part of the bush at the center of the flag & fire struggle.
I’m not trying to besmirch Long. Whether or not you agree with his tactics (I find myself more aligned with Long’s actions than with the idea of singing peacefully when confronted by white supremacists) you have to recognize that in a moment as charged as this, it might be hard to remember the exact sequence of events.
Memory’s a tricky thing; it’s a prime motivator for why photographers make pictures. If I were in Long’s position, I might have misremembered the sequence, too. Would you? But it’s clear from the video that the gun is fired after Long ignites the fumes from the spray can.
The video, from the ACLU of Virginia, has a provenance described by Allison Wrabel in the Daily Progress on August 26th:
“The ACLU of Virginia said it noticed the specific content of the video on Aug. 16, when a legal observer uploaded it to the group’s Dropbox account. Letters provided by the ACLU of Virginia show that staff sent the video to the FBI on Aug. 17 and then to Charlottesville and state police on Aug. 20.”
What’s odd is that whoever made the video didn’t know they’d captured a guy shooting a gun until four days after the protest. Was no one else live-streaming this particular moment? What does this guy’s👇🏻 footage look like? What does the photograph look like taken by the photographer wearing a hat?
Does the fact the ACLU legal observer didn’t realize what they’d captured lend credence to the police’s inaction, and their claim that they never heard the gunshot because it was subsumed in the rally’s loud chaos? Was the legal observer an official hired by the ACLU, or was it someone who just downloaded and fired-up this app?
At the time of the gunshot, I was watching a live-stream, and took notes about some of the unreal violence I was seeing, putting together a timeline just to make sense of it all. I needed a way to recognize the seriousness of the day, in relation to all the other days since Jan. 20th in which America has been pushed to tilt.
While watching the stream, I was convinced something bad was going to happen — that the day wouldn’t end without someone getting badly hurt, or worse. The tension was too ugly and palpable. Even from my far-away vantage, I knew as much; the day would not end well.
Back to the photograph; here’s a GIF that includes the moment in which Helber made his photograph, as the gunman (Richard Preston) lowers his pistol to chamber a round.
And here’s the full sequence again.
The day after Frances Robles’ piece As White Nationalist in Charlottesville Fired, Police ‘Never Moved’ was published, Preston was arrested in Baltimore. He’s an Imperial Wizard of the KKK, which came as a surprise to no one.
Preston’s hateful trajectory reads like a mixture of the brand of bigotry Trump barnstormed across cable TV five years ago (he’s still storming, and his barn is now the White House), mixed with Alex Jones’ cruel and unusual conspiracies, plus Wayne LaPierre’s night terrors of a gunless planet.
He spouted the usual “Birther” nonsense (i.e. that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.), claimed the massacre of school children at Sandy Hook was a hoax, and “guaranteed” that then-President Obama was “gonna use the U.N. to come after your weapons here.”
What strikes me about the video isn’t the shock & horror of hearing a KKK-Imperial Wizard yell the N-word before firing a gun in a crowd, or the efficient speed with which Preston returns the pistol to his holster (the speed of guilt & embarrassment, perhaps?) it’s the sweep of the video’s action; from Helber (unseen) firing his shutter at Long’s flame, through Preston’s gunshot and quick heel-turn, ending with this bewildered man, Nic McCarthy, whose raw emotion I would watch in (near) real-time via a tweet from C-Ville Weekly at 2pm, as he reacted to the car attack.
The captured moment of Helber’s photograph, encapsulated inside a video of a gun being fired in Long’s direction, which concludes with the gaze of a bystander reacting to a troubling, violent situation — hours before an even more tragic scene erupts — to which the same bystander reacts in nearly real-time on video, inside a tweet, is a kind of future that’s as fascinating as it is an ongoing bewilderment.
This👆🏻 is a copyeditor’s nightmare, but it’s exactly why I wanted to write all this down.
To show what, exactly?
There’s so much obviousness in our digital lives and livelihoods, so much perpetual coolness and blasé “I saw that on PLATFORMOFCHOICE yesterday.” We’re all reacting twitchily to the present-tense firehose of inundation, but it feels like we might be missing minor miracles.
When the flood keeps coming, after awhile, all the high water looks the same.
The unplanned, staggered publication of all this info, consumed out-of-order to its actual sequence (the first thing I saw, just after 2pm that Saturday, was the heartbreaking C’ville Weekly interview/tweet with McCarthy) and how the skills it takes to understand and piece together a new kind of meaning from this media-stew feels less fun than forensic; poking a moment that’s passed.
And there’s so much here to probe. How Long said (via Callahan) that when he and his friends (including Deandre Harris) were chased into the parking garage on Market St. by white supremacists (including Preston, allegedly, whom I can’t find in any of the existing footage or photos of the parking garage beating):
“Long was in the parking deck with Harris as he was getting assaulted by white supremacists. But Long wasn’t the only one there. There were other people standing around with their cameras, not helping. They seemed to be just worried about capturing that perfect shot.”
Remarkable how in the span of a few hours, Long found himself on both ends of photojournalism’s conundrum; to capital-D Document so that the world can see and witness; but by documenting (and only documenting), a photojournalist (I’m not referring to Helber) might not feel ethically inclined to step-in to assist whomever might need defending from a mob of stick-wielding white supremacists. (See South Africa, 1990–1994.)
Or how the first time I saw Preston was in a tweet later that evening, and it was a photo of a screen on the back of a DSLR camera, which was displaying an entirely different video of Preston threatening the crowd with his pistol.
I can’t moralize about whether or not it’s right for photojournalists to intervene, or whether or not it’s right for Long to use a makeshift flamethrower that ignites Preston’s hate to such heat that he yells the N-word and fires a warning shot into bushy dirt in a crowd full of people.
My instinct is that punching Nazis is a good thing, but my instinct could very well be wrong, and you could be wrong too, about whatever it is you think.
These are challenging, malleable times, and there are enough people yelling all day long about how you should act, what you should think, and what you should feel.
My last thought is that if you see something that doesn’t make sense, and it keeps coming back to you, and you can’t shake it, write it down; see if it gets better once it’s in words.
It may or may not.
If it does, click publish.
Thank you to Steve Helber for his incredible photograph (we didn’t even discuss the flower), to Corey Long for his inspirational counter-protesting ingenuity, and to Yesha Callahan, Frances Robles, and Doreen St. Felix for the contextualization and for making sure the stories about this story didn’t fade away.
And to Nic McCarthy for the raw honesty. Thank you, sir.
— 20170829 [MDM]
20170831 UPDATE— An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified Steve Helber as the photographer wearing the hat, leaning from right to left, toward the flame, at the moment the photograph was made. Steve Helber told me he wasn’t wearing a hat that day.