Life

“These People Aren’t Zombies. They’re People.”

The photojournalist behind the viral image of anti–“stay at home” protesters at the Ohio Statehouse explains how he got the shot—and why its reception makes him uncomfortable.

A crowd of people screaming at the windowed doors of the Ohio Statehouse.
Protesters stand outside the atrium at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, on Monday. Joshua A. Bickel, Columbus Dispatch via USA Today Network via Imagn Content Services

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On Monday, in Columbus, Ohio, a group of about 100 protesters of the state’s conservative stay-at-home policies showed up outside the statehouse during Gov. Mike DeWine’s daily COVID-19 briefing. Reporters Anna Staver and Cole Behrens covered the protests for the Columbus Dispatch, and their story was topped by a striking photo of the protesters, pressed up against glass doors, mouths open in snarling anger. A red Trump hat on a man at the right of the frame completes the picture. You’ve probably seen it around, juxtaposed with stills from Shaun of the Dead or captioned with jokes like “The final season of The Walking Dead sucks.”

Joshua A. Bickel, a photojournalist for the Columbus Dispatch, took the picture. We spoke on Thursday about this week’s memeification of his work, which has surprised and unsettled him. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: How did you end up taking this photo? What was the assignment? 

Joshua A. Bickel: Since the governor started his daily coronavirus briefings, we’ve sent somebody there to livestream the press conference on our Facebook page. The person who usually does it was on furlough last week [the Dispatch, a Gannett-owned paper, has required weeklong unpaid furloughs of most employees in April, May, and June]. On Monday, I went there to fill in for him. The public affairs editor said, Maybe get a few pictures of the protesters, we might write something up. … I had taken a few pictures of their previous protest, the week before.

The week before, they had been right by the window where the briefing was being held, and you could actually hear them chanting outside, during it. On Monday, the briefing got moved into an interior room in the statehouse, away from the windows.

For these briefings, state officials are in one room and the press is in another, so we can be spread out safely. We were all facing one direction and the windows were sort of behind us. The protesters were banging on the windows; I think maybe they realized that you could hear the banging on the microphone that was in there for the press to ask questions, and it was reaching the room where the governor and everyone else was speaking.

The livestream was set up and everyone was asking questions. I knew it would take about 20 minutes, so I just stood up and was walking up and down, looking at the windows. I remember, seeing them up against the door, I wasn’t like “Oh, my God!” I didn’t stop in my tracks. I thought, “That’s interesting, look, windows”—because as a photographer you’re always thinking of ways you can compose an image.

So I took about seven frames in the span of six seconds, then I went back to check on the livestream and make sure it was still recording. I really didn’t think that much of it, to be honest with you.

Did you pick which of the seven the paper used?

As photographers, we’ve been asked to suggest what the best frames might be—we number them by order, because the picture editor has to work really quickly on tight deadlines, people are on furlough, and we don’t have as many editors working right now. I suggested one that wasn’t used—the one that did get used wasn’t at all my first pick! I think I had it No. 3. No. 1 was another picture of them at the window that was not as intense.

I didn’t even put [the photo that’s gone viral] on my personal Instagram account, because I was like, “I’m not going to post another photo from a protest, since I just put one up a few days ago.” It seemed a little repetitive. But then I heard from another reporter in the statehouse press corps who had seen the photo go around Twitter, and then I thought, “Well, if he thinks it’s interesting, maybe I will go back and put it on my Instagram.”

Why do you think people have responded so strongly to this one? 

It’s funny because, as a photojournalist, you want to do work that makes people feel something. … I think that people responded the way they did because of the emotion, because of the intensity of the picture. A lot of people said it gave them this visceral feeling.

Which is when it gets a little weird, because, you know, the protesters were not up there for like three hours banging on the windows. I think it’s important that people remember when you see pictures … that’s a fraction of a second out of 10 seconds that I stood there.

I think people felt like … there was that distance between me and them, because of the windows and doors, and it was like they were trying to get in. There’s been a ton of hype, about the zombie comparison.

I wanted to ask you whether you’d seen those zombie memes and what you think.

The last 24 hours actually have been really weird and really—what’s the right word?—not uncomfortable but just kind of like a little disconcerting. The picture got put out there, it got picked up, people had this really strong reaction to it. And then it just kind of like basically went out of my hands. It happened so fast that I have just been worrying. I thought, “Did I caption this accurately, did I represent what was going on correctly, did I do everything right?” And I did, but I just—

I don’t want to put words in your mouth. But I wonder if you’re uncomfortable because of the way it’s been used. I’ve seen a lot of people use it in a negative and demeaning way, attaching jokes about the protesters and talking about their odds of getting sick—

Yes! That’s it. It’s been a little uncomfortable, and I mean … the internet’s going to do what it’s going to do, and people on both sides do this to each other. But I’m a journalist. I try to come to things with an open mind. I try to be objective and listen to people no matter what or who they are, or what the situation is.

Me typically, I don’t cover a lot of breaking news. I don’t typically like making images where I’m just kind of there, making a picture, then walking away. I really like to talk to the people that I’m photographing, gain their trust, make honest images of them when I’m telling stories about them. A big thing I learned in school is people are letting you come into their life and letting the camera document them, which is pretty invasive in general, and they’re trusting you to be … well, not “nice,” but honest.

This situation [taking a photo from the other side of glass] was the opposite of that. … The zombie comparisons make me uncomfortable, because these people aren’t zombies. They’re people, and we don’t know what they’re dealing with.

I don’t know, because I couldn’t go out there and talk to them, and I got to be honest with you, I wasn’t going to go out there because I am taking [the pandemic] seriously and am taking precautions because I don’t want to get myself sick or my family sick.

Ah. I wonder if some of your discomfort around the popularity of the picture might have to do with second-guessing whether you maybe should have gone out there and talked to them.

Right. Well, the reporter for the piece did go and talk to some of them. But yes … This comparison, between them and zombies, is not the way I thought it would go. They are people. They have a right to protest and have their voice heard. Could they have been a little bit more responsible, given the current circumstance? Maybe, but that’s up to them to decide. They know the risks.

But now they’re going to go to a grocery store and spread it to everyone else!

Well, yes. But right now … we’re really divided. There are a lot of people who don’t want to have a rational discussion, talk about what we can do for each other. We want to yell. I don’t want to feel like I contributed to the divide.

I did my job, I needed a picture, I turned it in, and it’s been a little overwhelming to see it go the way it did. I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t sleep very well last night.

The really nice thing I’ve seen has been people crediting me and the Dispatch, where I work, with the picture, when it’s shared. My biggest hope is that people see this kind of work, share it, and decide to support local journalism, wherever they are.