Pulitzer-Winning Photographer Made Charlottesville Photo On His Last Day On The Job

Apr 17, 2018
Originally published on April 18, 2018 2:46 pm

Last summer, on August 12, photographer Ryan Kelly arrived at a far-right rally in Charlottesville, Va., to take pictures for the city's newspaper, The Daily Progress.

It was his last day on the job — and it was a memorable one. A photo he took of a car plowing through a crowd of counterprotesters became the defining image of the chaos that day.

On Monday, Kelly was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for the photo he took.

The photo shows a car careening into a massive crowd, with bodies flying through the air.

"You see sunglasses and shoes and cellphones that aren't connected to people's hands or feet or heads. You see water spraying. There's just a lot of violent, violent details that are coming through in ways that you don't normally experience in everyday life," Kelly says.

The scene shown in Kelly's photo is the same incident in which 32-year-old Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer was killed, and in which 19 others were hospitalized.

"I'm honestly shocked that more people weren't affected by that," Kelly says. "It was such a violent collision. He was traveling so fast down the road when he collided with the crowd. It's amazing to me that more people didn't die, but I'm very thankful for that."

Kelly says his role as a photojournalist is to bear witness to the events around him, but that prior to the far-right rally, he hadn't "covered anything remotely as dramatic or intense" in his four years at the newspaper.

"There's not normally that sort of emotional wrestling that I have to do with an assignment, so this was something new and something more intense than I was used to dealing with," Kelly says. "But that's part of the job. That's news and this was absolutely news."

In Kelly's case, the news of the Charlottesville rally became a global story.

"I'm just happy I could have done my job in that moment despite the fact that I wish it had never happened to begin with," he says.

Kelly left journalism and now works for a brewery managing its social media. On his career shift, he says, "I love journalism. I believe passionately in its importance ... but I was just burnt out after four years and I needed a change."

Noah Caldwell and Emily Kopp edited and produced the audio for this story. Wynne Davis adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Last summer on August 12, photographer Ryan Kelly arrived at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., to take pictures for the city's newspaper The Daily Progress. It was his last day on the job, and it was a memorable one. A photo he took of a car plowing through a crowd of counter protesters became the defining image of the chaos that day. And yesterday, that photo won him a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography. Ryan Kelly, welcome to the program.

RYAN KELLY: Hi, there. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So I'm looking at this photo right now. I remember this just all over the Internet at the time. There is a car careening into this massive crowd. Literally, bodies are flying through the air. Can you help me describe this photo for listeners right now?

KELLY: It's difficult to look at for sure. Looking at the photo, you see people flying through the air. You see sunglasses and shoes and cellphones that aren't connected to people's hands or feet or heads. You see water spraying. There's just a lot of violent, violent details that are coming through in ways that you don't normally experience everyday life.

CHANG: And we should note that it was in this collision that Heather Heyer was killed.

KELLY: Yes. Yeah. Heather died. Nineteen people were hospitalized, and I'm honestly shocked that more people weren't affected by that. It was such a violent collision. And he was traveling so fast down the road when he collided with the crowd. It's amazing to me that more people didn't die, but I'm very thankful for that.

CHANG: As a photographer, have there been times that you kind of wished you weren't there to document moments, or do you feel that part of your role is to be there and bear witness?

KELLY: Yeah. My role as a photojournalist is absolutely to bear witness. That being said, working at the local newspaper in Charlottesville, Va. - in my four years at the paper, I had never covered anything remotely as dramatic or intense as this. You know, normal day-to-day coverage is community events or portraits or high school sports or something like that. There's not normally that sort of emotional wrestling I have to do in an assignment. So this was something new and something more intense than I was used to dealing with. But yeah, that's part of the job. That's news, and this was absolutely news. As it turned out, the whole world was interested in what happened. And I'm just happy I could have done my job in that moment despite the fact that I wish it never happened to begin with.

CHANG: You've since left the newspaper The Daily Progress. And I understand now - you run social media for a brewery. Why the career change?

KELLY: Well, it's a familiar story to anybody who knows a journalist in their life. I'd been at the newspaper for four years, and I love journalism. I believe passionately in its importance, but it's bad hours. It's bad pay. It's stressful work. And I was just burnt out after four years.

CHANG: Yeah.

KELLY: And I needed a change. So I started looking for jobs, and I found this gig that was right up my alley. It's a 9-to-5. It's low stress.

CHANG: (Laughter).

KELLY: It's great folks here, and there's free beer at the end of the day. So it was a...

CHANG: That is a nice perk.

KELLY: ...A nice quality of life trade-off. But I had no idea that I was going to be leaving the newspaper under such wild circumstances.

CHANG: Ryan Kelly, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography. Congratulations and thank you very much for speaking with us.

KELLY: Thanks so much. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.