United States Project

The photographer behind the emotional Dallas shooting image is an intern—but he’s no novice

July 8, 2016
Two squad cars set up as a memorial in front of the Dallas Police headquarters. (Image via Dallas Police Department)

In the aftermath of Thursday night’s sniper attack on police in Dallas, a photograph of a sobbing Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) officer quickly became one of the most recognizable images of the tragedy. The picture ran in print or online at publications from The Seattle Times to The Washington Post, from the Miami Herald to the Mankato (Minn.) Free Press—and full-width beneath a banner headline on the front page of The Dallas Morning News, which was widely shared online.

It was a strange sensation for the photographer who made the image. Ting Shen, a 27-year-old intern, has only been at the News a few weeks. But the Taiwan-born Shen, who became a U.S. citizen in 2013 and graduated from Columbia College Chicago last year, is no novice. As a freelancer for the Xinhua News Agency, he covered the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, where his helmet took the blow of a hurtling rock, and his gas mask didn’t always manage to keep out the tear gas. He’s also interned at the Chicago Sun-Times and the Peoria Journal Star, and is an alumnus of the Eddie Adams Workshop.

On Friday afternoon, I spoke to Shen about his mixed emotions in taking the photo—and absorbing its aftermath. Below are excerpts of our conversation, which have been edited for clarity.

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How did you come to cover this?

We had three photographers assigned: Gerry McCarthy, Smiley Pool and also Ashley Landis. They were assigned to the rally at 7. Me, I was finishing up an earlier local assignment in a small town, a town hall meeting, so I got back around 7:30. [About 9pm] we heard about shots fired, and we were monitoring the situation… Once we heard reports of officers harmed, the photo editor Michael Hamtil says, “I need you to go here, I need you to do this, I need it – go go go!”

So I got to the hospital, and people are just shocked, people are numb. I was walking by the sidewalk on the ER entrance and I had a straight view into the ER entrance… and then I heard sobbing. I looked over, and there was this DART police officer and another, a woman police officer—I would say she’s a police officer because I can see she has a gun in her holster—so they’re comforting each other while all the emergency crew is running around. And they’re just trying to calm their emotions, and the guy’s trying to help her to really sort of control it, I guess.

Your point of view as a photographer is inherently different from what we see as the viewer. I sort of, because we can’t see her but we can see him and he’s really crying, I sort of thought she was comforting him, but…

He was comforting her. He is comforting her, while he is sweating and bawling, breaking down. She is the one who was really losing control of emotions.

What had the police told you beforehand about where you should be?

Before I lingered on that spot as I took that image, they thought I was a walker, passerby, because I was really casual—I wasn’t sitting with the camera, stationed, looking straight at ER. They were focused on, they were worried about what happened to them and their colleagues.

When you were taking it, did you think this is a picture that’s really going to tell the story and really going to connect with people, or just we’ll take this and see what happens?

It’s like… this is emotion. I haven’t seen this much emotion in everything else yet. This is the photo. But no photographer can think in the sense that it’s going to be on half the nation’s front page. That wasn’t my expectation as I took it.

I became numb myself. I’m not necessarily shocked but I’m numb… We have to inform the public of stuff but then it’s such horrible, it’s horrible scenarios like this. I know this is the image, but then I start thinking—does the informing part justify the exploitive part? Exploitive may be the right word, maybe not. But then you have to suppress those, the emotions within you as a journalist, I guess, to really do the job.

So I wasn’t able to sleep well last night, I really got fatigued and passed out at 6am but I guess I have a relatively … good coping mechanism, I’m still in good shape.

When you were taking the photo or even after, did the thought of the role of race within the photo, was that something that played on your mind at all?

I never even thought about it… I didn’t think about it as a black police officer. It’s simply two police officers, really, really sad—they’re sobbing. That’s how I look at it.

So tell me about when this photo started spreading, you started seeing it used in other news publications and it was selected to run on front page, were you surprised? What was your reaction to that?

I got my last A-1 on a Sunday feature regarding a Dallas City highway plan. I did not in [any way think] this was going to be my second A-1. …. I really didn’t expect that and to a certain degree I’m not too happy about it because it’s such a sad image, it’s such a sad event. I guess I’m famous now, kind of, but it’s not for good reason. I really wish it wasn’t like this, I really wish this didn’t all happen.

But as a news photographer most of your achievement is going to be tied—most news is sadness, and is drama, and violence.

To certain degrees I have sort of come to terms with it. Yeah, when it took off, at first I was like OK, it’s The Dallas Morning News cover, cool. Then the Peoria Journal Star had it on their cover, and that was my last internship… and then the San Francisco Chronicle put it up, etc, etc, etc. I was like wow, OK, it is what it is, I have to keep on working, I can’t get carried away with it because I’m young and relatively immature to some degree. I have to keep myself focused. I can’t look at my screen the whole time when in this moment something may be happening, at the hospital.

What are your plans in the short term? The internship is just a summer thing, right?

The day before yesterday, [The Dallas Morning News] offered to extend my internship until the end of December. I said yes. I want to do a long-term piece on the story here, so staying here and working on it is important, instead of just parachuting some place and doing it for a month or two, a few weeks, which doesn’t do the story justice.

Tamar Wilner is a Dallas-based freelance journalist and researcher who writes about misinformation, fact-checking, science communication, and all things media. She tweets at @tamarwilner.