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Pulitzer-winning photographer reflects on Charlottesville

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The following is an excerpt from our project Charlottesville: One Year Later. Yahoo News spoke to over a dozen people connected to the deadly August 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Va., about how things have changed over the past 12 months. To read the rest of their stories, click here.

On July 31, 2017, Ryan Kelly, a photographer for the Charlottesville Daily Progress, gave his two-week notice, announcing that he would be leaving the newspaper for a job as a social media coordinator at a brewery in Richmond.

“Bittersweet news, gang,” Kelly wrote. “After four years as a photojournalist for The Daily Progress, my last day will be August 12.”

That was Saturday, the day violence erupted at a white supremacist rally in downtown Charlottesville, and Kelly, on his last assignment, captured what would become the iconic image of the chaos: the moment when a car slammed into a group of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and leaving several others injured.

“They were just marching together, singing, chanting,” Kelly recalls. “It sort of looked like any other march that I would see for any other demonstration or event over the last couple of years in Charlottesville. They weren’t being antagonized; there weren’t any other white nationalists or anything like that. So it actually felt the calmest that Charlottesville had felt all day. I just wanted to get some pictures of them — just standard stuff, people walking, just showing the size of the crowd.”

A few seconds later, Kelly says, he “felt” a car speed past him.

“It was just my one instinct to pick up the camera and follow the car, and just mash down the shutter and take as many photos as I could,” he says. “And so that was the moment.”

Kelly’s photo shows several victims in mid-air as the car, a Dodge Charger, slams into the crowd, and shoes flying as people try to flee.

“The one that everybody knows now [is] the one of the moment of the attack, with people flipping over the car,” he says. “I knew pretty quickly that that was the photo that we needed to put out. We had to clear it with management and lawyers briefly, just over the span of a couple of phone calls, but it was decided pretty quickly that we were going to publish it. So that was up on our website and on the wire pretty quickly. And the response to that, just spreading immediately, was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was incredible the way people responded to that photo.”

Kelly spent Sunday helping the Daily Progress newsroom, responding to a social media messages and driving himself “crazy” reading news coverage of the car attack. On Monday, 36 hours after he took that heart-stopping photo, he was at his new job at the brewery.

“I decided that going to work and starting something new, and having something else to focus on instead of focusing on all of that, would be the best thing for me,” Kelly says.

Photographer Ryan Kelly at his office at Ardent Craft Ales in Richmond, Va., April 17, 2018. Kelly left journalism shortly after shooting his Pulitzer-winning photo to work at the brewery. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

His connection to Charlottesville, though, was far from over. In April, his photo won the Pulitzer Prize for outstanding news photography. Kelly and his wife were on a plane returning from Europe when the winners were announced, and found out when they landed.

“I looked up to the Pulitzer forever, even before I was involved in journalism myself,” he says. “I’ve always been very aware and sort of in awe of a lot of those winners. I still don’t know what to think of it, honestly. I don’t know that I’ve really wrapped my head around it fully — it’s just bizarre.”

Kelly still freelances as a photographer, and in May he was hired by the New York Times to photograph the wedding of Marcus Martin, who was captured in his Pulitzer prize-winning photograph.

“He’s the one in the red shoes getting flipped over the car,” Kelly says. “He was engaged at the time; he had pushed his fiancée, Marissa, out of the way, and that was sort of why he took the brunt of the hit of the car. So I was able to be at their wedding, able to meet them for the first time because we’d never actually met. I was able to meet [Heyer’s mother] Susan Bro for the first time too. We all kind of had this shared experience of Aug. 12 in different ways. And being able to connect with them, and to talk about our experiences and what happened then, what had happened since then was really, really nice. And being able to see a happy kind of joyous occasion after all of that hate and violence was a really, really nice opportunity that I’m really grateful to have had.”

Marissa Blair and Marcus Martin dance together during their wedding reception on May 12, 2018. (Photo: Ryan M. Kelly)

Still, it’s an opportunity Kelly would gladly give back — along with the Pulitzer — if he could go back in time and save Heyer’s life.

“I’m still very aware of the fact that it came at the loss of somebody’s life, and dozens of other people were injured, two police officers lost their lives,” Kelly says.

The officers — Virginia state troopers Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates — were monitoring the events from the air and died in a helicopter crash.

“Like, it was a tragic day, and I was spared most of it,” Kelly adds. “You know, I wasn’t injured; I was just a witness, but I’m very aware that a lot of people had their lives altered forever on that day. So it’s hard to just take joy in something like a Pulitzer when you know that it came because of such a tragic event. Like, if I, in some alternative universe, was given a choice, every time I would prefer that day not happen at all.”

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Read more from Yahoo News on Charlottesville, one year later:





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