College Media Geeks: Christian Lee, Student Photojournalist Who Covered Ferguson Riots
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) senior Christian Lee feared for his life a few times while taking photos in Ferguson.
The self-taught photojournalist captured a series of powerful images from the Missouri city at the start of the protests in mid-August, including during the first night of full-scale rioting. Lee’s photographs convey a sense of genuine lawlessness, pockets of destruction and mass unrest.
“In a nutshell, it was a complete war zone,” said Lee, 23, a business management major from Richton Park, Ill. “I have to admit, I was really scared, really scared. I saw people running past me with clothes they had just stolen out of stores. I saw people being injured from the riots. I saw [police] officers roaming the streets with a real intensity, on edge. … It took a lot for me to keep going, keep moving. But I didn’t turn around. I just kept shooting.”
Some of his shots ended up on his blog. Others were picked up by the ZUMA Press Agency. And still others were run in the Belleville News-Democrat and The Alestle, the SIUE student newspaper where Lee serves as photo editor.
In Lee’s words, “I was very happy that as a college journalist I was able to get the same access as most professional photojournalists and produce images considered just as good as theirs or even better.”
In the Q&A below — part of CMM’s esteemed College Media Geeks interview series — Lee (left) shares some additional memories from his Ferguson experience. He also offers advice to photojournalism students seeking to capture similarly high-quality images during a breaking news event.
How did you end up in Ferguson during the first night of the riots?
It was 10:30 at night [on August 10th]. I was getting ready to get into bed [on campus at SIUE]. I get a phone call from one of my friends, “Hey, have you heard about these Ferguson riots? They’re downtown, running into stores and stuff like that.” I saw some things on Instagram, but I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a deal. But once I heard about people looting and running into stores and stuff like that, I thought, “You know what, this could be big.” I stopped what I was doing, grabbed my camera gear and ran down there. …
[He drove roughly 40 minutes from Edwardsville, Ill., to Ferguson.] It’s easy to find out where the town is, but then you have to find out where the action is. When I first arrived there, there was nothing going on. I just saw people walking up and down the street. You don’t see anything. Nobody wants to tell you anything because you’re an outsider. I had to really inquire, walk up to people and talk to them and get a better sense of where the real action was taking place.
Beyond your personal safety concerns, what were the journalistic challenges you faced while on the scene?
I had to be very cautious, especially as a college journalist, as to what I was going to shoot and what I didn’t want to shoot. You have looters running right past you. They had just stolen stuff. They don’t want their photos in the newspaper. So you have to be very cautious and get people to accept there is a photographer in the area before you even document in any way. That was one of the things I had to really make sure I paid attention to before I started shooting. Once they became comfortable and once they accepted me, I had access. …
The whole time I’m shooting I’m also thinking, “How do I want to approach this? What do I want to be the overall theme?” … As journalists we have to be pretty careful what we document because we can be very one-sided. It may not be something we do purposefully. But if one thing interests us and we document that solely then we’re not really telling the whole story. I wanted to tell the whole story, regardless if it was peaceful protesting, if it was vigilant protesting, if it was the aggressive side of the police officers — just the totality of the story. When people look at my images, I really want them to feel like they were there.
Did race play a part in your photojournalism work or your time in the city at all?
Early on, I wasn’t thinking about my race. I was a journalist. I wanted to document the situation. Then I shot this one photo of a Caucasian male who wanted to join in the protest. But he said some of the other protesters who were there at that point in time threw a brick at him and while he was on the ground they stole his wallet. That’s when I realized my race actually is playing a part in getting me access. I realized, “I’m not getting hurt here. Nobody is being aggressive toward me.”
But on the flip-side, although I had access, I was still in fear for my life because I blended in with other protesters. Late at night, pointing a camera at police officers, that could have easily looked like a gun. They could have been in fear for their lives and easily shot at me and would have been justified. That was very scary.
What is a specific moment you were especially fearful?
I had a press pass, but at night it’s really hard to see from far away. It was pretty much useless. I remember one point in time I was approaching police officers. This was before they released the curfew. … The officers were telling me to return home. I stuck my camera in the air and said, “Hey, I’m with the media. I’m a photojournalist.” They didn’t respond to that at all. They fired either a blank or a flash-bang at me. I thought it was a bullet. I was really scared. I don’t work for a professional publication. I didn’t have a bulletproof vest or a helmet. I was really scared.
What’s your advice for student photojournalists assigned to cover a similarly combustible protest or crisis situation?
I think it’s easy for college photographers to get intimidated by other photographers from large news media. At that time though I was in a zone and it didn’t matter what publication I was shooting for. All that matters is that I needed to get that shot.
When you’re in that situation, there are two things that keep you from shooting. One, you’re too scared to approach the danger. Two, you think you won’t have the access. I would say to any student photographer: Once you have a camera in your hand, you do have the access. You have just as much access as anyone else, including the professionals.