Photographer Ryan Kelly Explains His Charlottesville Photo & Why He Thinks About It "Every Day"
For those not in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year when a white nationalist rally turned deadly, images of the event showed harrowing scenes of chaos and brutal violence. But there is perhaps no other image from last year's "Unite the Right" rally that is as seared into people's memories as the photo Ryan Kelly took in Charlottesville when a car struck counter-protesters, causing dozens of injuries and one fatality.
Kelly's Pulitzer-Prize winning photograph is a chilling image. It depicts a vehicle plowing into a crowd of counter-protesters that had been peacefully marching down the street. In the photo, bodies are flying, legs hang upside down, shoes, glasses, and water bottles appear suspended in mid-air. It is a scene of horror. A frozen moment of deadly chaos. And it is, in all likelihood, a photograph of Heather Heyer's final moments. The 32-year-old counter-protester was killed in the attack.
According to the Washington Post, Kelly shot more than 100 photographs in the roughly 24 seconds that the attack took place. He'd been photographing the rally and counter-protesters all day for The Daily Progress. But he said he had no idea of what was about to happen when he spotted a grey Dodge maneuvering on Fourth Street as peaceful counter-protesters marched around him.
"When he heard a car rev its engine and saw a flash of metal speed by," the Washington Post wrote, "he didn't know what was happening; he didn't think. He did what photojournalists do: pointed his camera and shot."
In one of those hundred plus photos, the Washington Post reported that Heyer's forehead and glasses could be seen directly above the car's roof as she appears to stare directly at the driver as he barrels toward her. Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, also believes her daughter is visible in the photo, telling the paper, "That's my girl, looking right at him."
Although Kelly left his job as a staff photographer for The Daily Progress to be a social media manager at a Virginia brewery almost immediately after photographing the Charlottesville rally (the career change was already in the works prior to the Unite the Right rally), his work there continues to be a defining moment in his career as a photojournalist. In April, his image of the vehicular attack in Charlottesville won him the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography. In announcing him as the winner, the Pulitzer Prize Board noted that his image "reflected [his] reflexes and concentration in capturing the moment of impact."
But Kelly is well aware that the accolades he's received for his photography work at the Charlottesville rally come at a high price. "I've also been very aware that [the Pulitzer] came at the expense of the death of Heather Heyer, of dozens of other people being injured, of Charlottesville being torn apart," Kelly told the Washington Post. "I think about that every day."