David Carson hid across the street from a gas station in a patch of trees. No one could see him there as he transmitted his first batch of photos from the looting of a Quik Trip back to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was just after 10 p.m. on Sunday night. More than 24 hours had passed since police shot and killed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
When he finished, Carson looked around and saw police gathering up the street. He walked back toward the police officers. Things seemed a bit calmer. He made a few photos. Then he heard that the gas station had been set on fire.
I need to get a picture of that, he thought.
Carson, a photographer with the Post-Dispatch, started walking back toward the gas station, farther away from the police.
He took a few photos. And that’s when he got noticed.
He’s shooting photos, Carson remembers someone shouting.
“Get him. Kick his ass.”
“I just turned and started running.”
But Carson had on a helmet, riot gear, two cameras and a backpack to digitally transfer his work. He’s not that fast as it is. About 150 yards from the police, someone struck him in the back of his head.
Carson fell and saw pieces of his lens scatter into different directions. He turned around just as a foot came toward him.
— David Carson (@PDPJ) August 11, 2014
The war closet
Earlier Sunday evening, after dinner, Carson watched on Twitter as crowds gathered in Ferguson, a city in St. Louis County.
“I saw a tweet about tear gas and I was like, I’m outta here,” he said.
As he did the night before, Carson grabbed his gear and got into his car. On the way, he stopped by the Post-Dispatch’s newsroom to grab riot gear.
The war closet — it’s called that because the gear has only been used to report from Iraq and Afghanistan — was locked. No one could find the key. They did, eventually, and Carson grabbed some gear and threw in into his trunk.
He headed for Ferguson.
Carson, who’s originally from Boston, has lived in St. Louis for 14 years. In 2004 he worked from Iraq for a month. In 2006 he worked from Afghanistan for a month. He often covers crime in St. Louis and has arrived twice at shootings before police. They’re all dangerous situations, but Sunday night, he said, “was the most unpredictable.”
Much of Ferguson was locked down Sunday evening, so Carson weaved in and out of backroads to get near the Quik Trip and the looting. Three blocks away, he put on his helmet, his vest, grabbed the tear gas mask and walked in shadows toward the gas station.
He hung back for awhile, taking some long shots. But he could tell where the real pictures were.
“The real pictures were inside the store, and I was like, well, you need to go in the store.”
He looked around as he walked up to see if he was drawing attention. At the front door, a man stood outside and greeted him. The man wasn’t part of the looting, just watching. Carson introduced himself, shook the man’s hand and asked if he’d watch Carson’s back while he made a few photos.
Inside the Quik Trip, a man asked Carson what he was doing and lifted his shirt to show the photographer a gun.
I’m making pictures, Carson remembers telling him. Your face is covered, you’ll be fine.
The man seemed fine with that and went back to looting.
Carson stayed in the gas station for a less than two minutes and thought to himself, OK, I need to leave safely.
“And I got back out.”
Just after 10, he headed across the street to transmit the first batch of photos.
— David Carson (@PDPJ) August 11, 2014
Throughout the night, Carson got calls and emails from news stations asking if they could use his photos “for credit.” Or how about $75?
“No,” he told them and tweeted. “I’m a professional. The last time I checked, you can’t eat a credit.”
The money for his photos goes to his newsroom, but newspapers are struggling, Carson said, and “I don’t think newspapers should be subsidizing national TV news organizations.”
He doesn’t mind sharing his work with local TV stations. The sharing usually works both ways, he said. But this is his profession. It’s insulting to be asked, by people who are paid to do their jobs, for free work.
Throughout the night, Carson had to assert who he was and what he was doing, to protesters, to professionals and, eventually, to police.
‘This is my job‘
At 10:42 p.m., after getting struck in the back of the head and knocked down, Carson turned around as a man pulled his foot back. Carson kicked back and swung his camera at the man.
A pastor, maybe, or a preacher who Carson spoke with earlier that night, ran up and told the man and his friends to leave the photographer alone.
They backed away and Carson headed closer to the police. For awhile, they were pretty nice. Maybe, he thought, they thought he was one of them. After things quieted down though, Carson thought the cops got bored. They approached him.
“What are you doing here?” they asked him.
“And I was like, I’ve been here the whole time.”
“Who are you?” they asked.
“I work for the Post-Dispatch.” he said.
“What are you doing here? This is our job,” the police told Carson before kicking him out.
“And I said, ‘This is my job also.’”
— Antonio French (@AntonioFrench) August 11, 2014