ARTS & CULTURE

Two Photographers On Bringing Local Stories To Our Nation's Attention

In Charlottesville and St. Louis, Eze Amos and Robert Cohen document pain and love in their communities.

10/04/2017 10:56 EDT | Updated 10/04/2017 14:48 EDT
Eze Amos
Part of Eze Amos's #cvillepeopleeveryday series.

Welcome to ”The Story We Share,” a series of Q&As that profile two people with similar identities ― but who live in very different places. As part of HuffPost’s Listen To America tour, we’re exploring how people’s lived experiences overlap and diverge depending on their zip codes. What is the “American Experience?” It depends where you look. 

***

In August 2014, shortly after police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed black man named Michael Brown, members of the St. Louis, Missouri, community took to the streets to protest police brutality and racial injustice in America. Three years later, in the same month, white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee. When counter-protestors showed up, tensions escalated and turned violent, culminating in the death of an activist named Heather Heyer. 

Both of these moments captured the attention of the nation. Photos of Black Lives Matter demonstrators alongside police in riot gear, as well as images of grieving UVA students juxtaposed with white supremacists bearing tiki torches, flooded social media. Despite not being physically present, people around the country got a sense of just how blistering, impassioned and significant these events were. 

Eric Kelly / Stephanie Cordle Frankel
A photo of Eze Amos (left) by Eric Kelly and a photo of Robert Cohen (right) by Stephanie Cordle Frankel.

Eze Amos and Robert Cohen are both photographers who, in their own ways, have been telling the stories of their communities. Amos, born in Nigeria, lives in Charlottesville, where he works a day job as a wedding photographer. But his passion is street photography, specifically, capturing Charlottesville citizens in daily life. With his hashtag project #cvillepeopleeveryday, Amos hopes to balance the negative perception of Charlottesville that has lingered since the August rally by showing the love and unity that most residents believe in. 

Cohen, who grew up in New Orleans, now lives in St. Louis, where he works as a photojournalist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Although his photos routinely depict community life ― from residents’ gardens to county fairs ― he is now known for capturing one of the defining images of the Ferguson protests. In the photograph a black man named Edward Crawford, wearing an American flag on his shirt, winds up to return a fiery tear gas canister to the police who threw it into the crowd. The canister sparkles and pops with golden flames that vanish into clouds of smoke. Cohen and the rest of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch photo staff were subsequently awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography. 

Below, Amos and Cohen discuss their lives and work, why they call their cities home and what it means to photograph their own communities. 

Photo by Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Armed protesters march in downtown St. Louis as a man from a boarded up dry cleaners watches through the doorway after former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley was acquitted in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith on Friday, Sept. 15.

Where are you from? How did you end up where you are now? 

Eze Amos (Charlottesville): I’m originally from Nigeria. I moved to Charlottesville nine years ago. It was a cultural shock, my first trip out of Nigeria. A lot of things were different, walking down the streets and not having people say hello to me. In Nigeria, if somebody looks like they’re older than you, you are almost obligated to greet them. Even random strangers will stop to greet you. If you do it here, people look at you. Now Charlottesville is home. It’s felt that way since I had my daughter. It’s a really beautiful place to raise a kid.

Robert Cohen (St. Louis): I was born in Philadelphia, grew up in New Orleans. After school, I went to University of Texas, had a couple jobs in South Florida, then moved to Memphis, worked for the The Commercial Appeal for 10 years and came to St. Louis in 1999. My director of photography in Memphis took the same job in St. Louis and about a year later he encouraged me to come visit. I decided to give it a try. 

How would you describe your city’s personality?

Amos (Charlottesville): Charlottesville is a very happy place. People are really cool and kind and open. But I can’t disguise the fact that it’s the South. It’s Virginia. As a black person I can feel it. The downtown mall, it’s a beautiful place. I can walk up to anybody and strike up a conversation. But it’s not lost on me that I’m looking at everybody in the mall right now and I still haven’t seen a black person yet. It’s not any one person’s fault ― it’s how the city has evolved over time. But we need to try to put in more effort. I want to see more than the few black people I see here panhandling. So many black people are working three or four jobs somewhere like this with $12 lunches. It’s not designed for them. It’s a beautiful place but — it still has that. I feel very welcome here, I feel at home here. But I have had my own experiences with racism in this town.

Cohen (St. Louis): It’s not the South, that’s for sure. St. Louis is a really nice place to raise a family. I wouldn’t describe it as the world’s friendliest place. It can be a difficult place to make friends. In the South, if you pass a stranger and don’t say hello, they look at you funny. Here, it’s not like that.

Eze Amos
David Duke on Market Street on the day of the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville.

Eze, what kind of discrimination have you experienced in Charlottesville? 

Amos (Charlottesville): I used to work as a firefighter with the county. It was my first real experience face to face with racism; at that point, I didn’t even have a name for it. I got recruited with six or seven other people and, from the get-go, I noticed I was getting different treatment during the training. I tried to raise the issue with my supervisors, but they just kept telling me I should just do what I’m told. I was being drilled on stuff before I was trained on how to do it. Eventually they said, “You’ve been here for so long and you didn’t complete what we wanted you to.”

This was back in 2012. I finally got the chance to speak with the fire chief and he expressed his regret and his disappointment at what happened to me. He asked me if I wanted to come back. I was the only black firefighter in the county. I didn’t know this, I was just two years into the states. I realized after I got fired, wow, I was treated different. That was my crash course. It opened my eyes. In a way I’m grateful that happened to me. It’s made me more aware.

How did you become interested in photography? 

Amos (Charlottesville): I became interested in photography back in Nigeria. I grew up around storytelling. I grew up poor, we didn’t have power all the time. At night, without power, we’d just sit around a table and my dad would tell us stories and stuff. It started one day when I walked into the library, where I’d often work as a teenager as a lab technician. I walked in one day and saw a book of photography. There was this black-and-white photo of a dead dove lying on its back. It completely blew me away. I still pretty much only take photos in black and white because of that photo. 

I used to draw, but I’d never held a camera in my hand before. I grew up in a very, very poor family. The idea of a camera was a luxury we couldn’t afford. I was lucky to find a friend whose dad’s old beat-up film camera was still in the garage. He dug it up for me and cleaned it off. I took my money and paid a repair man to fix it up and bought my first ever roll of film ― black and white. I couldn’t print the photos. I didn’t have the money, so I just kept collecting the negatives. When I came to the U.S. in 2007 with my rolls of film, the first job I got was at a camera shop. Finally, I digitized my film. 

Cohen (St. Louis): I worked for our high school newspaper and, at the same time, I got a job at the local camera store in Metairie, Louisiana. There I was exposed to a lot of things. The guy who ran the photo lab there was the photographer for the New Orleans Saints. He would bring me to some of the games and let me shoot from the sidelines. It was my first taste that someone could make a living doing this. I decided to go to a college with a good student newspaper and journalism program.

Photo by Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Members of the St. Charles Municipal Band roll past a 1953 Chevy on the lot of McNeil Motor Cars as the St. Charles Jaycees Riverfest Parade makes its way through the Frenchtown neighborhood on Tuesday, July 4.

Robert, have you always thought of photography from a journalistic lens? 

Cohen (St. Louis): I’ve dabbled in art photography here and there, but for me, it’s more about meeting people and telling their stories, documenting the world around us. 

In your photography practice, do you have a certain mission or mantra that you keep returning to?

Amos (Charlottesville): The rap group Arrested Development has this song “People Everyday.” I’ve always loved that. I love how much story you can tell from people’s faces alone. If you take a photo of someone from a certain angle, with the light hitting a certain way, you can tell a million stories. It was scary at first ― walking up to random strangers and taking a photo. It’s one of the major things that keeps people away from street photography. It took me a while to be comfortable enough to stand right in front of someone, get on my knee, take a shot, stand up and go away.

Cohen (St. Louis): Not really, no. Look, I love meeting people. I love telling stories about our community. You learn so much from just meeting anybody on the street. I’ve been working for a few days now on a story about a police officer and a social worker that teamed up to help the homeless. I guess what motivates them motivates me. You want to use your work to make a difference somewhere in somebody’s life. They want to help homeless people, provide them services and enroll them in programs. I want to have a similar impact in telling readers about our community. 

Do you have a day job? 

Amos (Charlottesville): I’m a documentary wedding photographer. Charlottesville is a big wedding destination, so I take advantage of that. I try to do as little posed photos as possible. Most people don’t appreciate that until they see them. But they are paying for me to tell the story of their day.

Cohen (St. Louis): This [working at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch] is a full-time thing. I don’t do a whole lot of freelance. We have seven photographers left at the Post-Dispatch. We’ll ride that last wave and keep going until we can’t.

Eze Amos
Police protecting the scene of the car attack during the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville.

Robert, how has your job at the paper changed over the past few years?

Cohen (St. Louis): We lose people constantly and it’s changed a lot in terms of the immediacy. With the website, we’re on a 24/7 news cycle and they want everything with more urgency. Back in the day, we’d be casually looking over images for the next day’s paper. Those days are gone. We are in the instant gratification news cycle. With breaking news, we sometimes send photos to our office straight out of the camera. With the new pace, I don’t see a whole lot positive change. You don’t get the time to get deeper and deeper into stories. We will still do projects, where we take an issue and spend a long time looking at it. We still do that kind of work. It’s just a little more rare than it used to be. 

What role does social media play in your work?

Amos (Charlottesville)I’ve always used social media. In the past year I began to focus on Instagram to showcase my street photography series #cvillepeopleeveryday. It’s encouraging to attract viewers from all over the world. I have been posting photos of local protests on Facebook for a few years and getting a lot of shares just across the local Charlottesville community. This was gratifying and made me feel like my work matters to my neighbors. After the terror attacks in Charlottesville, I used social media to push out my images of the resistance. It’s been amazing how some of these images have circulated all over the place, being shared through networks. The hashtag organizing tool has been huge.

Cohen (St. Louis): Social media is huge. Part of my job is getting people to our site through any way possible. Twitter, which is the main social media I use ― I’m tweeting out photos, I’m tweeting out links. I’m trying to get people back to our website to use these stories. 

When did you start documenting the protest movements in your community?  

Amos (Charlottesville): I’ve been following Jason Kessler since he started the whole push not to get the statue [of Confederate general Robert E. Lee] taken down a year and a half ago, or two years ago. It was a no-brainer for me. I was there for the KKK rally, which was something. It was awesome — in a bad way. I was scared. I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve never seen a KKK guy in his full robe before. When they finally came out, there was something about them that made them seem — eh. They had their robes and some of them were silky, flammable, like if somebody lit a cigarette they would catch fire. I was not impressed. The fear of standing in front of Klansmen was taken away from me when I actually saw them. I thought, oh, this is a bunch of scared, angry, white men. They were posing for cameras. They wanted to be on camera.

Cohen (St. Louis): I’m always looking for people that are giving visual cues of their need to be heard, from Ferguson to what’s going on now. The protests are much more organized now. It can be kind of like Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day,” where you see the same faces out there every day, marching on the same issues. It makes it challenging to find photos that haven’t been done before. Sometimes I’m looking for loud photos, sometimes I’m looking for quiet photos that might indicate these are the people who have been out here night after night after night. There were people arrested at the mall recently and protesters actually camped outside the county jail waiting for their release. We’re trying to cover it from as many sides as possible. There are still a lot of people that want to be heard in this community. 

Photo by Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Edward Crawford tosses a tear gas canister fired by police who were trying to disperse protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 13, 2014. 

Is there one single photograph or series that you think has defined your career as a photographer?

Amos (Charlottesville): The #cvillepeopleeveryday [project]. I’ve always been attracted to the documentary style and black-and-white photography. In my wedding and events business, I incorporate this style and seek out clients who want it, but the #cvillepeopleeveryday project is a place where I fully invested my passion for this work. I started this project before the attacks in Charlottesville, and I never expected it would actually turn into a space of healing for people. I’ve been sharing my images of ordinary life in downtown Charlottesville throughout the summer, alongside my images of hate and resistance. Now I’m having people reach out and thank me for capturing and reminding them of what they feel is the “real” Charlottesville ― not a whitewashed rebrand, but just ordinary people from all backgrounds living their lives day to day in a small city. 

Cohen (St. Louis): For better or for worse, I am known in this industry for one specific image in Ferguson. That’s an image that everybody knows and everybody has some reaction to one way or another. The picture itself should have never been shot. We were all going home for the night and there was a turn of events and there it was. It happened. It’s kind of strange because it’s not really indicative of my work. I’m a community photojournalist and I’m much more likely to be seen at a July 4th parade or photographing plates of food for restaurant reviews. We’re doing much more community driven photojournalism and this looks like a war zone image. I don’t do that kind of work very often. 

Would you say that photograph or project has changed your life?

Amos (Charlottesville): Yes. My body of work this past summer has really resonated with people. I think it’s a lot of factors. It’s the fact that I’ve been documenting protest in Charlottesville for years, and protest locally has changed dramatically since the election. We used to be a town where you take your toddler to a small gathering of activists, gathering in solidarity with people being oppressed in other communities like Flint or Standing Rock or Ferguson, and speaking up to connect the dots with our local issues like gentrification or the lack of a living wage for university employees. Now we are ground zero for the national fight against neo-fascism. I’ve been able to live here through that transformation.

I also think my style seems to resonate with people. I have a deep love of storytelling through portraiture, capturing the small details of facial and body expressions that reveal a person’s perspective and identity. Through practice, especially this summer, I’ve developed a very distinctive style, and I guess you could say I’ve found my voice. I’ve gained a lot of respect locally as a black immigrant photographer on the front lines. While that shouldn’t be the reason people attach to my images, the way I naturally see the world is offering a perspective that’s not always in the mix.

Cohen (St. Louis): It’s changed a lot of things. I don’t know if it has changed my life, but it has definitely made me busier. A lot of people want to talk about it. It’s an important image a lot of people associate with the resistance. I’m happy to have been there in that moment. 

People are still keyed in to issues of injustice. Even though we are talking about two different situations, with Michael Brown then and Jason Stockley now, people see it as the same story of racial injustice. The people that were marching in Ferguson in 2014, 80 percent are still out there today. I see the same faces every day I saw in Ferguson three years ago. It’s important for them to see we’re still out there covering this story. Whether we are out on the actual protest lines or doing stories on how the community has been impacted by the protests, we’ve gone in a lot of different directions. It’s amazing to me how much they’ve sustained this the whole time. I did a talk about Ferguson yesterday for the Federal Reserve Bank, and at the end of the talk I said, “If you’re interested in this subject, there is a protest forming right now outside of the building. It’s still going.”

Eze Amos
Heather Heyer's candlelight vigil in Charlottesville.

What do you think photography is able to capture or express at this particular time in your community that other media cannot?

Amos (Charlottesville): Art can do a lot. I’ve always wanted to lend my voice in some way to fight racism, racial equality and economic inequality. I have not been able to find a way to do that. I am not someone who would want to be part of a rally carrying big signs. But I can be there to tell the story. I remember when Sandy Hausman from NPR asked me, before the KKK rally came to town, why I was thinking of risking my life going out there. I told her I want to be the one to tell the story of this community. A guy coming from D.C. or New York doesn’t know this city. They’re just like, oh, this small town. I know what this community has gone through. I would rather tell the story than let some random person do it.

Cohen (St. Louis): I think I have always been fascinated by the captured moment in time. That, for me, is where still photography trumps all other visual sources. Knowing that people are going to remember these fleeting seconds.

What do you hope people take away from your images?

Amos (Charlottesville): Right now Charlottesville is filled with so much negativity. That is why I have been trying to push my #cvillepeopleeveryday project, to show average Charlottesville people. This city is full of normal, fun loving people and families. It’s just unfortunate these guys picked Charlottesville to push their agenda. Charlottesville is the base for them to push their message out.

Cohen (St. Louis): I don’t think real deep about it. You want to have an impact on your community. You want people to have a new way to look at others ― at the homeless population, for instance. Everyone has a story. If readers see an image, maybe they’ll decide to go out and help. Or maybe when they see somebody on the street they won’t just pass them by. They’ll say hello and ask how they’re doing. I just don’t have any grandiose hopes of leaving any sort of legacy. I just like people to think about their fellow man a little more. 

Photo by Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Residents watch as St. Louis County Police officers stand along Tucker Boulevard in downtown St. Louis as police order protesters to clear the area on Sunday, Sept. 17.
Eze Amos
A photo of a memorial to Heather Heyer.
Photo by Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Jason Apple and Pam Martin clean up after closing for the day at Carl's Drive-In in Brentwood, Missouri, on Aug. 18, 2016. The mainstay along old Route 66, built as a 1920s gas station, was renamed in 1959 by owner Carl Meyer. 
Eze Amos
Part of Amos's #cvillepeopleeveryday series.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.