Photojournalism and the Pulitzer Prize: Pushing Conversations on Race Beyond St. Louis

Photo: St Louis Post Dispatch - Aug 2014 - Robert Cohen

Edward Crawford returns a tear gas canister fired by police who were trying to disperse protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Four days earlier, an unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot to death by white police officer Darren Wilson. The killing ignited riots and unrest in the St. Louis area and across the nation. (Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch - August, 13, 2014)

More photos from the Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalists at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Pulitzer Prize-winning community photojournalist Robert Cohen of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch will speak at 7 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Al Neuharth Media Center on the University of South Dakota campus. His visit is part of the USD and South Dakota Humanities Council recognition of the 100th anniversary year of the Pulitzer Prizes.


“There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.”
- Robert Frank, 1958, “The Americans”

By Chuck Baldwin

Robert Cohen gets the irony.

“That one photo is not indicative of a lot of my work,” he said. “I’m not a war photographer. I’m a community journalist.”

But that one photo – Edward Crawford wearing an American flag shirt, holding his bag of St. Louis’ Red Hot Riplets, throwing a flaming tear gas canister back at police – has become the iconic image of protests that gripped suburban Ferguson, Mo., for several months in 2014.

It was an image of war.

And it was war. Cohen and other St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalists opened their “war closet” for body armor and gas masks, the Missouri National Guard called protesters “enemy forces.”

robert cohen mug - 300dpi wide for web.jpgCohen, though, was in Ferguson that August night precisely because he was a community journalist and not a war photographer in some far-off country. It wasn’t his first time there.

“I had worked on one of the earliest stories I did (for the Post-Dispatch) out there,” he said. “We did a profile of a first-time political candidate, spent a few weeks with this woman, went door-to-door with her, spent election night with her.

“I got to know a few Ferguson residents through her.”

And the popular Ferguson farmer’s market. And the community’s big Fourth of July parade. All regular subjects for Post-Dispatch photographers and reporters.

At the time, Cohen admits, it “might seem like meaningless coverage.” Until the protests.

“We had been building relationships. We knew (the protesters) well before Aug. 9. We knew the community very well,” he said.

“It helped us. Protesters didn’t mess with us. They expected us there, they expected us to cover their community.”

Cohen learned that focus on community at his first job – the small Sun-Tattler in Florida.

“We were hyper-local,” he said. “No wire (photos or stories) on the front page.”

“The best reason for practicing community journalism is to create a stronger community understanding. …”
- David Kurpius, “Community Journalism: Getting Started,” RTNDF, 1999

Covering the community took on new meaning on Aug. 9, 2014, when Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was shot to death by 28-year-old white police officer Darren Wilson.

By the next night, peaceful memorials turned into loud protests and looting, with 150 police officers in riot gear pushing back.

On Aug. 11, rocks were thrown, tear gas shot. Aug. 13, Molotov cocktails, tear gas, smoke bombs, protesters and journalists arrested.

Most of the problems journalists had were with police, not protesters, he said. And that’s even though the Post-Dispatch has just one black photographer (Christian Gooden). The rest are white or Asian. But it can cut both ways.

“The night the grand jury came down (refusing to indict Officer Wilson), he (Gooden) was trying to get out like we all were,” Cohen said. “We were cutting through back yards. Homeowners pulled guns on him twice.

“I don’t know if that would have been different if he was a white journalist or not.”

But the grand jury decision was Nov. 24, three months after the Brown’s death and the protests started.

“I was not there the first day (of the protests, in August),” Cohen said. “As a newspaper it took us about a day and a half to understand this was a serious story.”

In part, that might have been because St. Louis mostly had escaped the Southern and urban violence of the 1960s. Not that race issues were unknown:

• The first two 19th century Dred Scott decisions came out of downtown’s Old Courthouse.
• Across the river in East St. Louis, in 1917, as many as 200 blacks were killed by whites and much of the city burned in what began as white protests over jobs.
• In the 1940s, no action was taken after a grand jury looked into accusations of police abuse of blacks.
• On Christmas 1947, riots began outside a tavern after police killed a black man.
• And starting in the 1970s, court decisions attacked segregation in schools and housing.

Except for the desegregation cases that mandated busing, most of that history had been forgotten by that first day of major protests – Aug. 10th – when Cohen was busy with other assignments. He shot a garage sale that featured a collection of manikins and then shot a portrait of a young woman packing to go to college.

“Mundane,” he said.

Cohen didn’t get to Ferguson until that afternoon – when the Post-Dispatch normally started staffing the community and when protests would start up.

Toward the end of his shift late in the night, activity died down.

“The night should have been over,” Cohen said. “One of the protest leaders got on a bullhorn and wanted everyone to line up in a single file line and said, ‘We’re going to go home with dignity.’ They got into a couple of pickup trucks and … I followed them out to make sure they got through the next police barricade.”

Cohen likes to get away from the packs of journalists when he can.

“But that particular night with Crawford I don’t think would qualify,” he said. “It was more like a housekeeping exercise.”

The same is true when journalists trudge to an airport just to see the president’s plane leave. It’s a just-in-case move.

And protesters in the trucks almost made it out.

“There was another protest going on I didn’t know about,” Cohen said. “They got out of the pickup trucks and it started all over. Police came up pretty quickly and fired tear gas.

“We were basically saying it was a peaceful night in Ferguson, and that was after two nights of tear gas. All I’m trying to do is get it in focus and I was in a rush to get it into the paper.”

Cohen didn’t really know what he had, but he sent the photos – too late to make the print edition of the paper – and tweeted. He went home, went to bed, got up the next morning and took his son to school, got back home and looked at Twitter, where his editor also had posted “the” photo.

“It just blew up,” Cohen said.

The Post-Dispatch won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for a collection of photographs by the eight-person team. But Cohen’s photo became the most-recognized image – shared countless times on social media, turned into posters and T-shirts.

“Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.”
- Dorothea Lange

“You realize you’re shooting historical photographs,” Cohen said.

But this surprised him. First there was the rush to identify the man in the shirt.

“People wanted to know more about this guy,” Cohen said. “I didn’t have time to go grab this guy’s name. It happened so fast.

“I was busy with this photograph for weeks afterward.”

Media interviews. Requests for talks. Cohen now has a prepared presentation.

He accepts the photo for what it is, even if he doesn’t consider it representative of his work. He’s done the overseas assignment thing, but that’s not his gig.

In the late ‘90s for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, he traveled to Bosnia and Croatia following a pediatric heart surgeon who spent time helping children.

In 2002, he followed former U.S. Sen. John Danforth of Missouri – then the U.S. peace envoy to the Sudan and later ambassador to the United Nations – to record the effects of war on southern Sudan.

He’s quick to point out that he didn’t cover war but the after-effects of war. Cohen could add that he covered the community members involved. He sees community journalism as a “duty.”

“You’re telling the stories of your neighbors,” he said. “You’re able to see into the communities. It’s a real responsibility, a responsibility to take people places they can’t go.

“I want to be able to shed some light on things. I like to tell light-hearted stories about their neighbors.”

Serious stuff, too.

“But I equally love to tell a story about a little old lady celebrating her 100th birthday,” Cohen said.

“It’s nice to travel every so often, but I don’t need to go across the globe to tell stories.”

“We are making photographs to understand what our lives mean to us.”
- Ralph Hattersley

And maybe this is where Cohen misses the irony. Because if all politics is local, isn’t the same true of photojournalism? Wherever you are with a camera, isn’t that telling the story of a community? War or not? Across the globe or not?

As Cohen says, despite all the technological changes in photography – that save time, improve photos – the basics haven’t changed.

“The storytelling hasn’t changed,” he said. “I want to bring back images … indicative of what happened, the mood of the day. You want people not just to see what’s in front of you, you want people to feel empathy with the subject.

“I like to take people inside stories as much as I can and make them feel that they’re there.”

The photo of Edward Crawford throwing back the tear gas canister while holding onto his bag of chips does that. So do all the 19 photos by the eight Post-Dispatch photographers who shared in the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.

Cohen is not sorry he took that photo. In fact, he credits that photo and the others at least partly with a welcome change.

“For me, those pictures of destruction and anger and fear are important, because it (the protests) finally got an audible discussion about race,” he said.

“St. Louis was never really a part of the civil rights struggle in the ’60s. St. Louis didn’t riot in ’68 when Dr. King was killed. We began a conversation that should have begun three decades ago.”

Cohen is right that St. Louis missed the riots. Most protests in recent memory, in fact, involved whites angered by court-ordered busing and other desegregation rulings – the suburban town of Black Jack, the school districts of Ferguson-Florissant, Berkeley and Kinloch, and a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the effect of discriminatory government policies.

Even the media were involved. For decades what are now the Suburban Journals – like the Post-Dispatch, owned by Lee Enterprises – refused to deliver newspapers to suburban Kinloch, Missouri’s first all-black community only about 10 minutes away from Ferguson.

The photos by Cohen and others illustrate how the conversation has shifted from jobs and housing and education to life and death itself. That’s where community photojournalists – not war photographers – make their impact.

“Photography can put a human face on a situation … It is a way to remember history and to try not to relive the mistakes of the past.”
- James Nachtwey

Cohen still stops by Mike Brown’s grave every now and then “just to see if anything has changed.” Mostly, though, he’s back to his routine – taking assignments to go with stories, sometimes just looking around for good photos. In the community.

“Nothing really special this week,” he said in June. “Going to an old folks home to see them getting smart phone technology and teaching them how to use it. And an undertaker who looks a little like Elvis. That should be fun.”

Maybe he’ll shoot some sandwiches.

“I shoot a lot of sandwiches (for food and restaurant stories),” he said.

No body armor or gas mask needed.

He emphasizes, “I don’t want people to think I’m a war photographer.”

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Chuck Baldwin is journalist in residence at the University of South Dakota. He was a working journalist for 35 years, winning more than three dozen state and national awards. His first journalism jobs were in suburban St. Louis, where – among other assignments – he covered the Ferguson City Council and the Ferguson-Florissant School District. He also covered Confederate flag protests in Texas and the struggles of Hmong refugees from Laos in Wisconsin, as well as Muslim refugees from Kosovo in Iowa.