The Life of a Photo: The Pepper-Spraying Policeman

An interview with Brian Nguyen, the student photojournalist who took the now-famous picture


The photograph of Lieutenant Pike, the now-infamous campus police officer, as he casually unloads a can of pepper spray on the bowed heads of seated student protesters, has traveled around the world. James Fallows compared the image to photographs of 1960s civil rights protesters being fire-hosed in Alabama. Megan Garber, writing at the Nieman Journalism Lab, says the image "captures a moment of violence and resistance in almost allegoric dimensions." 

The picture was taken by Brian Nguyen, a first-year student at UC Davis and photographer for the school newspaper. I found Nguyen at the Occupy UC Davis camp on Tuesday and asked him about the pepper spray incident and the power of photography in the age of social media.

When did you start covering the protests at UC Davis?

Well, I first took the assignment around October 27th when there were marches around campus to defend higher education against tuition hikes. Last Thursday I came out for the rally. The protesters had set up tents and I stuck with them through the entire day and night to see what happened. Then on Friday I got a text that said there would be a police raid.

The text was from one of the protest organizers?

I had a contact here who I asked to notify me if anything happened, because I have classes and things to go to. When I saw the text, I ran out here and waited for the police raid.

nguyen.jpgWhat happened during the raid?

I was here about two hours before and I saw the police mobilize [on the edge of the quad] and I walked with them as they came into the quad. They formed a line [near the tents]. Lt. Pike stepped up. He was yelling at the protesters to disperse. He had a bullhorn but for some reason he wasn't using it. The protesters were chanting and you couldn't really hear anything because it was so loud. He's yelling and they're yelling and he's saying something about penal codes being violated. When the protesters wouldn't leave the police started to move in.

For a while the police officers were just picking out students to be arrested. Some students said it wasn't fair that only some of them were arrested. So they encircled the police and sat down and linked arms, waiting to be arrested. Lt. Pike went up to the main blockade of students and told them that if they didn't move they'd be shot. When the students wouldn't move he took out his pepper spray, showed it to everyone and shook it up. Then he stepped over the students and he sprayed them. He made multiple passes spraying them.

When did you first realize your photo was going to get national attention?

I didn't actually realize that it was going to get national attention until it got national attention I suppose. I spent that night emailing different photo editors and my contacts in the industry, but at that point it was too late, around 1 a.m., to really get any traction. A couple of news organizations weren't interested. I gained traction on Tumblr first, submitting my photos to The Political Notebook, then to James Fallows. I suppose that's when it went viral. I wasn't thinking much when I took the photo. I was on autopilot. I saw, composed, and shot.

Do you have a sense of how far that image has spread?

Reuters has licensed my photos. I gave The Guardian and a few other news outlets permission to use my photos the day after for web purposes on Saturday because I felt the story had to get out and my photographs could show what happened. Someone on my Flickr commented from the Netherlands. And my cousins in Vietnam have seen the images and they're all supporting the movement so that's pretty cool.

James Fallows compared your photo to a 1960s photo of civil rights protesters being fire-hosed in Alabama.

In many ways they're similar photos. Nonviolent protest is being met by excessive force. I can only hope that my photograph will be able to impact the world as that photograph has.

What do you think of the Pepper Spray Cop Tumblr? Does remixing journalistic images trivialize them? Or does it just help them get wider distribution?

Memes like that give the image wider distribution. They only open up the issue to a wider audience. 

Do you think the images of Lt. Pike changed the course of Occupy UCD?

Those images, along with the video, have galvanized the Occupy UCD movement. Thursday saw maybe 10 to 20 tents on the quad. Today, there were 74 tents on the quad according to some reports. Monday's rally saw over 4,000 students.

Have Twitter and other near-instant media channels changed the power of photography?

With Facebook and Twitter, rather than seeing a photograph like mine in the paper or on some website, it's right on their feed. It's disruptive and it's juxtaposed by the banality of the day-to-day Facebook or Twitter activity. Not only that, but Facebook and Twitter allow for the photograph to be seen by a wider audience, an audience that may not normally be checking news publications daily or even weekly.

What's it like to have produced an iconic protest image?

It's pretty crazy. People are calling me a hero and saying I'm brave and all that and I don't think that's true. I think the people who are real heroes are the ones who sat down in nonviolence to protest. They're the ones who put their bodies on the line. I was just there taking pictures.

Image: 1. Brian Nguyen; 2. Andrew Price.