I am a passionate photographer and also an avid consumer of news - both online and in print. I am often fascinated by photos I see accompanying news stories. Photographers capture incredible images while being shot at in war zones and while avoiding tear gas in clashes between protesters and police officers.
Recently, I interviewed a photojournalist to truly understand how he manages to shoot photographs while literally avoiding bullets flying past his head and his camera. What goes through his mind and what emotions does he feel during these situations? How does he manage to shoot photographs while being shot at with bullets?
I spoke with Stephen Yang. Stephen has covered protests in Baltimore and Ferguson. He has also made photographs in Tahrir Square, Egypt and he has covered the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Additionally, he has covered many local news stories in New York City and beyond.
Here are some of Stephen's photographs, all with permission granted by Stephen. Below the photo gallery is my interview with Stephen.
Ben Arnon (BA): Are you scared when you're in the middle of an intense scene making photographs? What is going through your mind during those moments? What are the emotions you're feeling and how do you stay focused?
Stephen Yang (SY): My experience with violence and unrest has evolved over time. You'll always have a certain amount of fear in a situation when you don't know the outcome. What I've learned is how to channel that fear into something useful. Or at least try to maximize the amount of my brain I can use for useful tasks rather than just running away. Certainly there are some situations where it's not worth the photo. Or there are situations when you'll have your gear taken away.
With Baltimore, my main concern was if someone did not like what was going on and that I was taking photos. My biggest concern was not being able to continue taking photos during the day because I might lose my gear.
The key to staying physically safe for me is being able to channel that fear into something that's useful. Some sort of energy that allows me to keep on assessing what's going on. When I'm feeling very afraid I'm not able to think about assessing the dangers or to assess what's a good photo and what's not a good photo.
It took a long time for me to get to the point where I can override that fear. I had a breakthrough in September during the West Indian Parade in Brooklyn, where there was a shooting. That is the closest I've been to a shooting.
We heard pops and then people started running. I threw a sandwich in my hand to the ground. As I was halfway to the popping sound much louder, distinctive popping started to my left. I could feel it in my rib cage. I turned to that sound and was able to lift the camera to my head, adjust the dial to adjust the exposures and get a picture. That was the first time I was able to wear down the fear of something like the initial sound of gunfire. I did not just run and hide. Rather, I became alerted to something.
Afterwards I felt a little strange about how little fear I felt. Something like Baltimore is a lot more difficult to assess because it's ongoing. If the danger is looming over your head for hours it does wear you down.
I think I would be remiss to not mention that it's part of the excitement of the job of photojournalist. Being hyper-aware. The adrenaline is addictive. I don't get that many opportunities in my normal life to have to think so quickly and be so reactive to my environment with so much utility. To think about how the world has been pared down to a most essential fight or flight sensibility.
BA: How do you get the shot as opposed to just a shot in those situations?
SY: I think people are drawn to geometrics and framing. The more you take photographs the better you get at honing your decision making and the shots you take. The more I do it the more I realize that the first frame is generally the best and to trust my instincts. It becomes more of a muscle memory over time. In my mind I think lighter or darker and from that I can move two clicks to the right or left, depending on what I'm seeing. For something where things are in motion, including myself, I need to stay above 1/500 of a second [shutter speed] for instance.
My best photograph from the West Indian Parade had me kicking myself actually. It 's a decent photo but it 's a bit out of focus. And the framing is not ideal. But it worked out okay. It ran as a double page in the New York Post and I was proud of it because it was my first breaking news cover. But I was upset and wished I had gotten it more in focus and that I'd been closer.
I think that's the more enjoyable thing about photography because there is a learning curve and I'm always improving over time. I think it's a good sign that I look back at photos I took.
BA: Is there a photo you've made that you're most proud of?
SY: I think I'm most proud of my Baltimore photos. Aesthetically speaking the picture of the cop car on fire is one of my favorites because it was the first time I'd actually shot something actively burning. That makes it appealing visually. Prior to that I'd always shown up to house fires or other scenes too late to get the active fire on film.
Sometimes you fall in love with a photo because it's hard to achieve. It was really hard to take, or someone told you you couldn't take it. Or it was cold. And there are other photos you love because they're visually very pleasing.
BA: What else do you think is interesting about your job?
SY: There is a lot of waiting in this profession. When you see the photograph you think it's action all the time. The reality is it's a lot of waiting around and a lot of piecing things together. You get really lucky sometimes. All the things that could have gone wrong you think about. There is a lot of detective work in the job that is essential to the photograph but you would never have any visual trace to it. That sense of trying to piece things together is a lot of what a photojournalist does.
There is a lot of trying to figure out not just how to take a picture of something but how to get the right person, how to get to the right place, being persistent, not allowing the difficulty get in your way.
When you're traveling, you have to figure out who to trust. If someone gives you a tip, you have to assess their motivations and if they're trying to help or hurt you. Everything is a puzzle. In journalism, you have to be skeptical about every piece of information you're given. There are a lot of agendas that play in life and in general. Being able to assess them is a very valuable skill in this profession. You have to sift through a lot of clues.
It is part detective and part photographer. It's always a balance between getting them to have a conversation with you or getting a photograph of them. Ideally you get both. But sometimes people don't want to do both. On the other hand, if you photograph someone who is a crime suspect without first talking they may not want to talk to you at all.
BA: So you're out there in conjunction with a reporter?
BA: Tell me more about your experience in Baltimore. You went with a friend who is also a photographer and with no reporter. Walk me through your thought process on going down there and some of the key moments of your experience.
SY: I heard about what was going on in Baltimore on the Sunday before the funeral for Freddie Gray. Some peaceful protests, which had been going on for weeks, had started to become violent and an image went viral of a protester smashing a car window with a traffic cone. I looked up the drive to Baltimore and seeing that it was short called my friend and fellow New York Post photographer, Gabbriella Bass, and we took the trip down, sharing hotel and gas costs to photograph the funeral.
I figured even if nothing were to happen it'd be a pretty low financial cost. We shot the funeral on Monday and it didn't seem like the day was going anywhere in terms of news photography. The streets were quiet. A lot of local media from Baltimore and Washington, DC were there and the wires each had one photographer: AP, Getty, Reuters, the usual crowd.
After the funeral we decided to get some crabcakes and went to a place called Lexington Market, a large Chelsea Market style place in downtown Baltimore. When we got there it was closed, which seemed strange since it was right around lunchtime. A barber from a shop next door came out and told us everything was shut down and there was a riot coming. We didn't know what to think but he pointed us towards the northwest near Mondawmin Mall. We were hungry so we found a place to eat and parked the car within a few miles of the Mall, eating rib sandwiches as fast as we could. The people at the BBQ place also told us there was a riot coming. They'd heard through texts and social media.
We got all our gear and started walking north when we suddenly saw it: a large group of teenagers whooping and yelling, maybe a 100 people running through the street. We picked up our pace. Soon we were surrounded by the teenagers who had overrun a police car and started jumping on it, throwing rocks and sticks and taking selfies. I approached cautiously, not taking any more pictures than I needed to. A helicopter hovered close to the rooftops, around five stories overhead shouting through a megaphone "Disperse! Disperse! You will be arrested!"
Soon an armored police truck arrived with a few police cars and the officers jumped out, popped their trunks and brought out green shotguns (which I think were beanbag or rubber bullet grade). One pair ran up to me and Gabbi and pointed their guns right at us. I'd never had a gun pointed at me and I instinctively put my hands up and slowly showed my New York City press pass. They ran past us and grabbed a stranded officer, still pointing guns at us and everyone around. Then they threw the police officer in the back of an armored vehicle and drove off quickly. We learned later that the officer had been hiding in a stairwell waiting to be rescued right behind us.
We followed the crowd as they went from business to business, looting and breaking windows. More police arrived, but they were keeping a distance from the crowd, blocking off streets and seemingly containing the flow of people, but not actively trying to stop them. At one point we saw the people breaking into a CVS, destroying a plate glass and crawling through. Me and Gabbi, trying to stick together, decided to walk over. I took a breath, looked through the hole in the glass door and jumped in.
Inside it looked like people were shopping, loading goods into baskets and carts, but with broken glass and products strewn all across the floor. A man was kicking through a glass display while another was looting the prescription pills. Another had his arms full of candy and diapers. One kid just had a single juice bottle. I didn't want to stay inside the store for too long and be trapped, so I went outside. Cop cars were driving really fast through the intersection, not stopping. Kids yelled at them, throwing bottles of soda and rocks as they drove by. At one point a cop car drove by and a kid used a fire extinguisher to smash its back window. The car screeched to a halt and a crowd of boys stiffened up. A police officer came out, extended his baton, looked at the crowd of eager boys, then got back into his car and drove off.
The CVS was lit on fire as well as two police vehicles parked on the street. More and more police arrived, forming phalanxes near the action, but still not intervening. Every now and then they would advance, announcing to the line "Advancing 10 feet, move!" Then beating their batons on their riot shields. It felt like an ancient practice, the sound of the wood hitting the shields in unison. The smell of burning from the store and cars filled the air. Kids formed their own barricade near the police barricade made out of debris from the store, milk crates and other trash.
A firetruck arrived and tried to put out the car fire, but people started throwing rocks at the firemen and they left without putting the fire out. The rest of the day was running around with the kids as they looted every place they could find. We saw one photographer get attacked and thrown to the ground for taking photos but just as that happened other teens came by and stopped it. They told the others not to attack us, that we weren't the enemy and we were just doing our jobs. It was easier photographing after that, as if there were some kind of ground rules put into place. It also helped that everyone was taking photos with their cell phones, so we weren't the only documenters of the scene and therefore the ones incriminating people.
We got back to the hotel that evening, exhausted from all the adrenaline. I got calls from my agency, Polaris, that there was a warehouse fire going on but I was too tired to go. Eventually we left after a couple of hours and drove around the deserted streets, taking photos of the destruction.
People had stolen cars and left them in the middle of intersections, setting them on fire. Car carcasses laid about. On one dark street we were driving and the car ahead of us suddenly stopped, turned its lights off and four people got out. We quickly backed up and drove away. The national guard started lining up their tanks and military guys and we saw a few raids going on. We saw a few people arrested.
The next day the media descended upon Baltimore, but it was too late. All the madness had stopped and it was much more peaceful. People cleaned up the CVS and swept up broken glass and burned trash. People played music and college students milled about. Packs of journalists desperately searched for a story and the carnage they saw on TV, but there was nothing. I had been picked up by Der Spiegel and spent the next day taking portraits and following some of the more peaceful protests. That night there were very few protesters and lots of cops and we got teargassed. I had a gas mask but gave it to Gabbi as I couldn't wear it over my glasses. I thought it was going to be fine but as they upped the potency of the gas I couldn't bear it and had to turn away. She stayed as we got gassed and took some amazing pictures.
We left a day later as it became only more media and less and less protesters.
BA: What is the most terrifying moment you have ever had while shooting photos in a journalistic capacity?
SY: There have been some scary moments but it's hard to say which is the worst. I think the level of fear changes with time and experience. One of the scariest moments was when I was in Cairo trying to catch the tail end of the Arab Spring protests in March of 2011. The first day I was there I got up at first light and walked out of my hotel with my gear towards Tahrir Square. Nearby there was a TV station where tanks and the military had set up. I took a few pictures of sleeping protesters and a couple of tanks.
One of the soldiers sticking out of the top of the tank locked eyes with me and made a throat-slicing motion with his finger. I didn't get it. A block down and a few more pictures of tanks later, I had two soldiers running towards me. They grabbed me, pulling at my cameras and dragging me towards a tank, screaming at me half in Arabic and half in English. The one who spoke English kept saying "no pictures, give me your cameras." I kept saying "no, i'm a journalist." They told me I'd go to jail if I didn't give them my cameras. Eventually they settled for my memory cards. I was pretty shaken up, I hadn't really dealt with much police and military at that point and definitely not in a foreign country.
It turned out there was a curfew that I had unwittingly broken and was brazenly taking pictures of the military. They thought I was mocking their authority. Lesson learned. I went back to my hotel and drank half a bottle of whiskey and fell asleep at 10:00 am feeling like I had failed already.
Later in that trip, I experienced gunfire for the first time, though it was pretty distant. Anti-government and pro-government groups were fighting, throwing rocks, molotov cocktails and shooting at each other. It was night. I was in the crowd, running up and down the street and up onto the elevated highways, not knowing which way the fighting was coming or where the rocks were coming from. But I could hear them hitting. I didn't know anyone, but a couple of large Egyptian guys who said they were ex-police helped me navigate (and later extorted me for sixty bucks worth of beer at a bar). One of them kept chuckling at me as I flinched from the gunfire, telling me that it was far away and I shouldn't be worried. I was still worried, not having heard gunfire before and kept thinking it would ricochet or hit me from a quarter mile away.
BA: What moments in history do you wish you had shot but you missed?
SY: I had an opportunity to go to Libya when I was in Egypt, right when it was kicking off in Tripoli. I met a guy who said he was one of the civilian rebels fighting Gaddafi. We met at a hotel in Cairo and he said he was a citizen journalist and wanted my help with a computer he got from "a spy." Later me and an English computer guy helped him with the gear, though it seemed like the story kept on changing. Actually he had robbed a foreign journalist of a nice pro Canon camera, laptop and satellite phone.
He said his name was Adel Adris and he asked that I film his story. We sat one night in his room drinking beer, he told me his story, and I shot it on video. Throughout the story he'd take a sip of beer and would say "I'm going to hell for this beer. But it tastes so good. I'm going to hell for this beer."
The next day we ran down 20 flights of stairs to follow a protest that seemed to be getting out of hand, traveling towards the TV station where all the tanks were. We kept an eye on each other and took photos of the large mass of men, who turned out to be undercover cops revolting. They pulled out their IDs and showed us, big beefy men shouting as Adel loosely translated, his eyes going wide with fear when he realized they were cops.
Adel asked me that night if I'd like to go to Libya with him. He said he could sneak me across the border, make me a fake press pass and that he had a lawyer and a convoy going into the rebel areas. I was too afraid to say yes. I didn't have enough experience with conflict and felt out of my element just being in Egypt. Now I regret it because it would have been the perfect timing but I can't deny that I had no experience then. I know much more about how to handle myself than I did then. I was untested. Even now I'd probably like to have some protective gear and medical training before going into a place like that. Six months later I got a Facebook message from Adel's brother saying he had been killed about a month before Gaddafi's government fell.
I also wished I had gone to Ferguson sooner than I did. I kept going back and forth about it and couldn't make a decision. When I finally decided to go it was too late to get the clashes between protestors and police. I learned then that you have to either go right away or not go at all. Baltimore was my opportunity to be in the right place at the right time. We got lucky with the timing, but it was also because we just went, we didn't dither about what was going to happen and if it was going to keep on going or not.
What do you think? Could you remain composed and focused enough to shoot photographs while facing bullets, tear gas, and other dangers? Let me know in the Comments below.