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Pulitzer winner Ryan Kelly reflects on iconic Unite the Right photograph

Ryan Kelly stands infront of beer barrells.
Crixell Matthews
Since taking his iconic and troubling photograph in Charlottesville, Ryan Kelly has reset. He now lives in Richmond, working a nine-to-five job, and shoots photos as a freelancer. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Among the images to emerge from 2017’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville was Ryan Kelly’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a car attack perpetrated against a crowd of protesters.

The day Kelly took that photo was his last as a staffer at The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress. He now lives in Richmond and works for Ardent Craft Ales, in addition to continuing his work as a freelance photographer.

Five years after Unite the Right, VPM News Director Elliott Robinson chatted with the journalist about the impact of his iconic and troubling photograph.

Disclaimer: Robinson and Kelly previously worked together at The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress, but not at the time of the Unite the Right rally.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Robinson: You kind of got famous — as much as a news photographer can get famous — from a picture of someone being murdered. How do you feel about that? 

Ryan Kelly: I mean, I want to say bittersweet. But even that doesn't capture it because the sweetness — there is no sweetness. Somebody died. I watched a murderer and a hate crime, and I watched dozens of people get injured. And I watched what had just moments before been a happy, celebratory atmosphere. 

I don't know that people understand the timeline.

Earlier in the day, fights were breaking out and people were going back and forth, swinging batons and shields at each other. That all got broken up. The sides had separated, and they went their own separate ways. The rally was over — it never even happened. [The car attack] was hours later on Fourth Street. 

These were counter protesters who were celebrating what they felt was a victory — driving out Nazis, essentially. And they were chanting and singing. It was a celebratory atmosphere. And it went from that — from hundreds of people, happy and joyous, marching down the street — to a car screeching down, speeding into them, crashing into a crowd, bodies flying, reversing. So, it went from happy, joyous, calm to terror in just an instant. 

It was bizarre and terrible. I'm proud of the Pulitzer Prize, because as a journalist — and even before I was journalist — that was something that I looked up to. But I'm aware that it came at the expense of a death and injuries, and a community being torn apart and still being torn apart five years later.

So, it's just a strange thing. I wish it didn't happen, frankly. If I could change it and take it back — I wish, obviously, that it never happened. I would certainly trade off being known and being an award-winning journalist and photographer for the violence not having happened. But it did happen, and I was there. So, for that fact, I'm glad that it was at least documented and brought more awareness to the awful, awful tragedy of what happened that day. 

Does photography mean something different to you now? 

It does. I think being a photojournalist at a daily newspaper — especially on a small staff, in a small market — we got so used to doing 2, 3, 4 assignments a day, rushing from one thing to the next. You're always filling up a paper, there's always a paper coming the next day that you have to fill up. The website needs new stories. And a lot of the stuff we were doing was local arts performances, high school sports, [University of Virginia] profiles and athletics. Things that weren't breaking news, but things that people in the community wanted to see. 

You get so caught up in the, "Here's what I'm doing today. People are going to read it tonight and tomorrow. On to the next thing. What's next? What's next? What's next?"

After that weekend of August 12, I had a much better appreciation for the long-term lasting impact of what we as photographers do: You document something that's in front of you, you tell the truth and you show what's happening. But that impacts people not just that day, but forever. I mean, there are people in that photograph, I documented the worst day of their life, and the entire world has seen it and will reference that picture forever.

There's more to all of these people's lives. There's more to my life then just what happened in that one split second on Fourth Street in Charlottesville on August 12. But the power of photography is such that that split second is what's memorialized forever.

What do you think about people asking for that photo not to be reprinted or posted online anymore? 

I understand it for people who are traumatized by that day. And I will say in the immediate aftermath, that photo was absolutely everywhere. It was completely unavoidable. It was in every newspaper, every news website, every wire service — just unavoidable. And it was overwhelming and it was traumatic, especially for the people who were there that day.

Since then, I think people have gotten more sensitive about when and how they use that photo, specifically. There are so many photos from that day from so many different photographers, so many different stories were told that go beyond just that one split second. And I think news outlets, especially local news outlets, have gotten better at balancing when to use such a shocking image and when to use things that can still tell the story from the day that aren't quite so intense. So, I think it wasn't great at first, but I think generally, newsrooms have gotten better at that balancing act.

What's your work-life like now? Do you miss the newsroom at all? 

I miss the camaraderie of a newsroom. That was always the thing that was going to be hardest for me to leave. I don't miss the grind of the work every single day, working terrible hours for terrible pay. That was the reason I left in the first place. I was just burnt out: It took four years at a daily newspaper to burn me out on what I felt was my dream career. 

I decided earlier [in the summer of 2017] that I was ready to leave the newspaper; my wife and I were ready to move from Charlottesville back to Richmond, where she lived when we first started dating. And I knew that I wanted to get out of journalism, at least temporarily.

So, I took a job at a brewery doing marketing, social media. It's a desk job in an office. I work a nine-to-five — if that, if I'm being honest. And I thought I would just kind of reset and figure out what was next from there. And five years later, I'm still there. And I'm still loving it. I love the people I work with. And it also gives me the freedom to continue to freelance.

I'm still photographing news and sports all the time, which is what I enjoy doing. But I can kind of do it on my own schedule. I can get a call and say, “Yes” or “No.” And my nights and weekends are still free. I still have a pretty normal schedule and a normal life. But I still also get to be creative and work on photography at my own pace and on my own schedule without burning out. 

So, my work-life balance now is 100% better than it was in 2017. And I don't regret a thing. You know, for a week or two in 2017, I was kind of second guessing myself. But I stuck with my choice, and it was the right choice for me. 

I believe passionately in journalism, and particularly in local journalism, as we're seeing local newsrooms get gutted — even beyond what they were in 2017. And I think it's important, but it's also really difficult for the people doing the work. In these small markets, you're not getting paid anything and you're working terrible schedules. And on top of that, every year, journalists are getting more and more abuse from the communities they're covering. 

Elliott Robinson is the news director of VPM News.
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