The Ferguson Photos

Like many Americans, I’ve tried to follow what’s happening in Ferguson, Mo., without really knowing what it’s like there. Dark live-stream videos and Vines don’t cut it. Words seem inadequate. That leaves us with photos, which are often the most impactful way to tell a story.

Potentially important images from cop cams and media drones have been absent. More on that in a moment. First, some thoughts on why these photos matter.

The picture above has been seared into my mind.

Taken by Getty photographer Scott Olson, the agency’s caption reads:

FERGUSON, MO — AUGUST 11: Police force protesters from the business district into nearby neighborhoods on August 11, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets as residents and their supporters protested the shooting by police of an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown who was killed Saturday in this suburban St. Louis community. Yesterday 32 arrests were made after protests turned into rioting and looting in Ferguson.

These sentences don’t fully capture what the lens does. It’s hard to fathom what a person feels as the jackboots approach (figuratively — and literally descendant). Individually, fear seems likely. Collectively, defiance would be inevitable. That was foretold by the three words scrawled in the frame: “fuck the police.”

I first saw a version of the photo in a powerful (and viral) post on Deadspin, “America Is Not For Black People.” Now whenever I see this photo, I reflect on the story.

Something about this also reminds me of lines from Sublime’s “April 29, 1992 (Miami),” which recalled the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles more than 20 years ago:

They said it was for the black man
They said it was for the Mexican
And not for the white man
But if you look at the street, it wasn’t about Rodney King
It’s this fucked-up situation and these fucked-up police

Many Americans of a certain age can sing parts of the song by heart. Maybe someday we’ll have an equally evocative song written about the events in Ferguson.

For now we have photos. This one certainly resonated with me.

There are other powerful images, some timeless in their own way:

While appreciating the great work of photographers who are risking their own safety, we should also lament the photos — and videos — that have been missing so far. Some of the most important ones haven’t surfaced and perhaps they never will.

We should be asking if the officer who shot Michael Brown was wearing a body-mounted camera. If not, why? The transparency these cameras can provide might be the fastest way to reset the public’s trust in law enforcement and hold violators accountable. It’s also a lot cheaper than all the military-grade gear that many of America’s police have been stockpiling.

We should be asking where the media’s camera drones are. I wouldn’t expect every local reporter to have one in their trunk, but a lot of journalists descended on Ferguson in the past week. They had time and financial backing. Many were corralled into a so-called “First Amendment Zone” on Saturday night while police chased off protesters who were violating an emergency curfew. Instead of tweeting about their inability to see the action, it might have been game-changing if their same mobile devices were controlling cameras flying over the scene.

One agency, Ruptly, put up a drone which gives a sense of the possibilities — but they’ve only released this clip of the aftermath and it’s unclear if they were flying during any of the more intense periods.

Granted, the use of drones introduces new legal issues. The FAA hasn’t been thrilled about them. Last year they sent a scary letter which reportedly caused the University of Missouri to abandon their Drone Journalism Program (yes, a real thing). But as of a few months ago, there weren’t any laws in Missouri explicitly prohibiting drones — even after one crashed into the tallest building in St. Louis.

The FAA certainly hasn’t sent letters to every journalist traveling through Ferguson. And while they did technically shut down the airspace, I’m not sure how they’d enforce that against drones — which can fly gracefully through a fireworks show:

I’m not advocating for anybody to break safety laws, not in letter nor in spirit. At the same time, I think it’s important to experiment and create test cases for emerging technology. I’m surprised that nobody seemed to be using any drones in Ferguson while the cops were clearing out protesters — not even a college kid or hobbyist. We’re entering a fascinating age where drone journalism could make an impact and serve the public good.

There are a lot of critical questions about how this will play out, many of which were raised in a recent post from the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We should keep talking and writing about it, but it’s more important that somebody just starts taking the photos.

UPDATE: One of my favorite websites, The Wire Cutter, published a thorough guide to the best drones on the market today. Noting that prices can crack $9,000, they focused on the $500 to $1,500 range. Their top pick comes in at just under $1,300. Not cheap, but if you run a newsroom that price is in the same ballpark as many laptops. “It’s the only one that is easy to control while having great battery life and range, terrific safety features, and a smartphone app that lets you preview your on-drone camera for photography and piloting ease,” they write. They also recommend a $90 starter drone.

Follow Adam on Twitter: @adjoro

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