Photography and the Police Scandal in Puerto Rico: Making and Deconstructing Myths

Chris Gregory grew up in Puerto Rico and left to attend George Washington University. He started covering politics as an intern for The Hill newspaper and The Washington Post. Mr. Gregory, 22, is now a photography intern at The New York Times. This conversation with Zara Katz and Peter Moskowitz Appeared in The New York Times.

Q.

When and how did you make this image?

A.

I took this photo on June 30, 2010, in front of the Capitol building (in San Juan).

There were student protests at the university because of budget cuts aimed at public education. If you want to graduate in four years, you have to be really careful with the classes that you take because they’ve cut the core classes. Most people have to graduate in five to six years.

This is right as the whole thing started. You can see all of the other journalists that are up on the steps of the Capitol building, but I was the only journalist that was interacting and covering it from the point of view of the students. It was fitting because I had been following them and felt really invested.

Q.

What is happening in this image? What is the back story?

A.

For two months, the students occupied the university. They closed and barricaded all the gates and created living communities. They didn’t allow the police or anyone else in. But I had been covering it for a while and knew a lot of these students because I had been camping out with them.

At the end of the whole debacle, they reached a deal with the administration. The deal fell through because no one held up their end of the agreement. The students were really angry.

The students and some citizens went to go protest at the Capitol building. A couple of people demanded access into the Capitol building and were denied. As they were trying to force their way in, a bunch of cops came out and started pepper-spraying people in the foyer of the Capitol building. It got really out of hand. People pushed up the steps. There was an order from the government to disperse people by any means necessary. They used a lot of force. There were old people in the crowd and a mother and daughter that were trampled. They were not really injured, but they had a rough time.

The police advanced and were firing tear gas. Everyone was running past me, and that is when I made this image. I am not even sure if I was looking through the camera. It is an iconic image with the Capitol building in the background, a real show of power. It was a big turning point for the country because it was an intense show of force that has not been seen in a long time.

Q.

Why did you choose black-and-white for this image?

A.

It was a big debate. In Puerto Rico, the colors are really vivid, but aesthetically, in color, it distracted from what was happening in this image. In black-and-white, it puts it in two dimensions; the eye doesn’t have to deal with as many things. In color, it detracted from the seriousness of it. Black-and-white is more classic and easier to understand. It creates a timeless quality. This was an important historical political event. In black-and-white, it communicates that in a stronger way.

Q.

How was this image a turning point in your career?

A.

These kids were fighting for education, and it was a violent situation. Because I was the only photojournalist in the crowd when it happened, I really had this sense of responsibility.

Making these images, I had this “a-ha” moment, where it clicked. I said, “If I am not here documenting this, nobody’s going to see it. I am the only journalist that is right where it is happening and documenting it from right next to the students.”

Later, I got phone calls from lawyers who were prosecuting the Police Department for civil rights violations and abuse. They wanted to use my images in court. The images did not make it that far, but the Justice Department issued a big report that this was a civil rights violation. They found the Police Department to be brutal and abusive and corrupt. It was interesting to feel that sense of responsibility and see it materialize in the report that was filed. It exposed the huge system of problems in the command structure of the Police Department.

It was my Eddie Adams moment. Really understanding the impact of photography.

For the original report go to http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/28/making-and-deconstructing-myths/

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