Ryan Kelly won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for his chilling photo of a car attack on a group of counterprotesters at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. He made the winning photo on a Saturday, his last day working for The Daily Progress. By Monday, he was working at his new job as a social media manager for a local brewery.
The story of the protest was a national story, and Kelly's photo became emblematic of demonstrations across the country.
Charlottesville is Southern, home to the University of Virginia. On the edge of town is Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello, and in a downtown park, a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general.
The city had renamed the park where the general’s statue stands from Lee Park to Emancipation Park. It also announced plans to remove the statue. That led to white nationalists organizing a protest under the name Unite the Right.
The Friday night before the scheduled demonstration, supremacist groups had organized a torch march to the statue. The next morning, the Unite the Right groups clashed with counterprotesters, and the violence forced police to shut down the demonstration before it began.
As protesters began to disperse, a man connected to the white supremacists drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer.
Kelly shared his experience with the NPPA in the September-October 2017 issue of News Photographer magazine. Here is that story:
“Bittersweet news, gang: after four years as a photojournalist with The Daily Progress, my last day will be August 12. I've accepted a position as digital & social media coordinator at Ardent Craft Ales, trading one passion for another.” Ryan Kelly’s Facebook post, July 31.
Ryan Kelly had scheduled his last day at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Virginia, on a Saturday, knowing a demonstration by Unite the Right had been scheduled. Along with fellow photographer Andrew Shurtleff, they were only a staff of two, and Kelly expected a new photographer wouldn’t be in place by then. so he stayed to help out. He also listened to his instincts.
“The journalist in me wanted to be there,” Kelly said.
During his last week, Kelly had thought that his coverage of a collegiate summer baseball team’s victory in a championship game would be his photojournalism swan song before moving into a job in social media at a brewery in Richmond, Virginia. The events at the demonstration changed that storyline dramatically.
Shurtleff had covered the torch march Friday night and Kelly knew Saturday morning that tensions would be high. He arrived around 9 a.m., several hours before the scheduled start of the demonstration, and there were conflicts starting among groups that only grew more intense throughout the morning as more arrived. People were shouting, pushing and throwing things.
By midday, the crowds were out of hand, and police went to loudspeakers, reading a prepared statement that they were declaring an unlawful assembly and shutting things down. Kelly followed some of the Unite the Right marchers to another park across town, but that turned out to be nothing much.
He headed back to Emancipation Park and saw a couple of groups of counterprotesters merging, walking peacefully along Fourth Street. Kelly stood in the middle of the street, taking long-shot photos with a 70-200mm lens. The mood, in contrast to earlier in the day, was quieter.
He stepped back to the sidewalk and, in his estimation, about 20 seconds later, a car came speeding down the pedestrian-filled street. It came seemingly out of nowhere.
Kelly didn’t know what was happening, but instincts from his years in photojournalism kicked in, and he followed the action.
“It was purely reflex at that moment,” Kelly said.
The car hit the crowd, sending people into the air, and then it quickly reversed up the street. Kelly followed, thinking the damage to the car and the heavy police presence would slow it down, but he soon found that the car was gone.
Returning to the scene, Kelly found his fellow photographer Shurtleff photographing rescue efforts. Kelly knew his photos needed to be sent to the paper’s online staff, so he headed to his car to retrieve his laptop.
He met the paper’s editor, who was on scene, and Shurtleff joined them to edit. The first photo they moved online showed the car just before it hit the crowd and was linked to a news update. The next photo, showing people being thrown into the air upon impact, was disturbing and graphic, but Kelly thought, “This is the moment, the news.” The editor reviewed the photo, and it was moved moments later.
The reactions were immediate, and the photo, within 24 hours, was being declared an iconic image of not only this event but of the story of race relations in the U.S.
For Kelly, it was a surreal moment. “It almost feels like a bad dream at this point,” he said.
Kelly worked a few hours on follow-ups Sunday, which turned out to be a quiet day. Monday he started his new job, spent most days the next week commuting to Richmond, looked for a new place to live and transitioned into his new role.
For many photographers, this kind of moment would lead to new opportunities in journalism, and Kelly was jumping into a different career the next day. Kelly did have choices that unexpectedly appeared.
“I got some phone calls and had to decide if this was really what I wanted for a career shift,” Kelly said. “Making that series of pictures, covering that news event, didn’t change my decision.”
Though he misses the newsroom, Kelly says the move was the right decision for him and his wife.
Ironically, though he works now managing social media, Kelly has spent little time with his personal accounts. It’s allowed him to disconnect from the protests and the continuous crisis cycle that has followed since then. He said he is just beginning to re-engage with daily news.