Photographer behind graphic Charlottesville image recounts near-death experience

A vehicle plows into a group of protesters marching along 4th Street NE at the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville on the day of the Unite the Right rally on Saturday, August 12, 2017. Photo/Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress

Ryan Kelly went to downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12 for one last assignment before leaving his staff photographer job at The Daily Progress. On that final workday, the 30-year-old captured an image that The Washington Post declared as “The photo from Charlottesville that will define this moment in American history.”

Kelly, who had been at the paper four years, was covering the widespread violence at a “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally in the city. He was standing on a sidewalk when a silver Dodge Challenger crashed into a crowd of protesters. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed and at least 19 others were injured. The driver, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Ohio, has been charged with second-degree murder.

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Kelly took a photo of the crash that was used by several news outlets and displayed on front pages throughout the country. He told CJR that had the events played out differently yesterday, he might have been among those caught in the crash.

What follows is the harrowing story behind the photo—as told to CJR by the photographer, Ryan Kelly.

*******

Our newsroom had been planning for this event for weeks, if not months, knowing it was going to be a huge day in Charlottesville. It was pretty much all hands on deck. I woke up around 8 and had two cups of coffee, but didn’t eat anything. I started photographing at 9 am. There were already a lot of clergy members around the park, and there were counter protesters.

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I hitched a ride with my editor downtown, and I started wandering the mall. There were groups on both sides scattered. There were a few small fights that broke out from time to time. People were throwing stuff at each other. A few people were beating on each other. Eventually I came across two large groups of people protesting against the “Unite the Right” rally and they merged together on Water Street. There were well over 100 people.

I walked ahead of them as they marched. I edged over onto the sidewalk to get pictures, and right after I did, the car came screeching past me at speed, plowed into the crowd of protesters and immediately reversed back up the hill. It turned, then took off. Out of instinct, I began taking photos. I just brought the camera to my eye and just mashed the shutter down. I was barely even aware of what I was watching until he was speeding into the crowd.

My instinct was to chase the car because I figured there wasn’t a chance he could get very far or he would wreck and there would be an immediate arrest. I thought those pictures would be important storytelling images. As it turned out, once I got out to the cross street, the driver got further than I expected and there was nothing I could do on foot immediately.

A vehicle plows into a group of protesters marching along 4th Street NE at the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville on the day of the Unite the Right rally on Saturday, August 12, 2017. Photo/Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress

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Right before the guy drove his car down the road, it felt like any other day I would be downtown. Because of that, I didn’t feel like I was in danger. Frankly, it was dumb luck that I was on the sidewalk instead of the middle of the road when I was. I was in the road for a few seconds, then moved off, then the car came through. I wasn’t anticipating it. I actually saw the car as I walked up to the scene. It was backing up the street and I assumed that he was backing out of the way and trying to go around the block, didn’t think anything of it until he was blowing past me 20 seconds later.

If that car had come through 20 seconds earlier, I would have been in the middle of the road, and I would have had my back to him. I wouldn’t have seen him coming at all. Honestly, I’m still processing that. It’s been such a crazy 24 hours that I haven’t been able to sit and absorb it. That was the first thing that went through my head a couple hours after I was done processing images. I was right where the car went, and I am very fortunate.

I’ve reached out to photographer friends, specifically somebody who has gone through the process of publishing photos that have blown up on a worldwide scale. That was a helpful phone call this morning. It was Sara Naomi Lewkowicz, who did a series on domestic violence. She told me to decide who I’m close with and talk to those people and be with those people. Don’t get caught up in the interview requests and stay away from Twitter threads. My wife always shouts at me for getting angry about comments on Facebook that are wrong or misleading. I’m really going to have to make a conscious effort not to do that.

I’ve been bombarded with people messaging me, tweeting me. I’m trying to keep my head down. Yesterday was supposed to be my last day. Things are developing today. I spoke to my chief editor, and I’m going in a few hours today to cover whatever happens today. The journalist in me is happy to see that part of the story through.  

Photographer Ryan Kelly. Photo by Rob Ostermaier.

I’ll be working at Ardent Craft Ales as a digital and social media coordinator. I’ve been a beer geek. I love craft beer and I love talking about it. It seemed like a great opportunity to me. It was a job at a brewery, which sounded fun. Also, by virtue of being a photographer at a newspaper with a small staff, I’ve done a lot of social media work. It felt like a natural fit, and the hours are flexible which means I can still continue as a freelance photographer.
This experience has been bittersweet, and it is way more bitter than sweet. 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.

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Justin Ray is the digital media editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.