Robert Eliason is a freelance photographer for South Valley Media, whose publications include the Gilroy Dispatch, Morgan Hill Times, Hollister Freelance, San Benito Magazine, and South County Magazine. After returning home from covering the initial eight hours of the shooting, he wrote a Facebook post about media coverage of the Gilroy shooting that went viral. Robert lives in San Benito County, south of Gilroy. His website is http://roberteliasonphotography.com/.
I was supposed to have gone to the Garlic Festival that day. I’d gone on Friday but I was going to go again in the late afternoon on Sunday to try to get more photographs for the issue. We were going to do a full-page spread on the Garlic Festival, and I wanted to get more events in other areas. I was waiting for the shuttle bus. It was hot, and I was tired because I’d already shot a couple things that day. I thought, “Oh, the hell with it. I’m going home.” So I got in the car and left. A student from Sobrato High School newspaper called me up and said, “Are you out at the Garlic Festival?” I said, “No, I’m home. What’s going on?” “There was a shooting.”
As soon as I heard about it, I texted my editors and said, “If you don’t know about this, get ahold of this story because it’s happening right now.” I immediately got a text back from my publisher, Dan Pulcrano, and he said, “We’re sending everybody out to try to get information. Could you head out to the hospital and see what’s going on out there?”
The hospital was supposed to have a media center being set up. As I was driving, I saw two people just talking in a group by a van in the parking lot. I asked them what was going on. We talked back and forth, and they mentioned that their child was one of the people that had been hit by shrapnel, and that the hospital was only letting one person at a time per victim. They weren’t allowing people into the waiting rooms. They weren’t allowing anything like that. Everybody was outside. I parked the car and I saw these three guys walking towards me. I asked them if they knew what was going on. They were ministers who had just come back from offering their help at the hospital and they were leaving. They were the ones that had told me the child had died. They had just come from the family of that child. I sat in the car for a while. The view that I had sitting in the car was this line of people standing in front of the hospital, sitting at the hospital, and the ambulance lights going, and the ambulance guys standing there. People who looked totally lost. All families and friends. I talked to a few people there. I talked to one of the ambulance drivers who told me that they had just brought somebody in who was airlifted off to another facility. I offered condolences to the people that were there. I didn’t question them. I didn’t talk beyond saying, “I hope things are going well for you.” I felt intrusive just standing there waiting to be told what was going on. I felt intrusive particularly because of the fact that I was media and didn’t want to be viewed as a vulture waiting for a story. I was waiting for a story. I was waiting for the media center to open up.
One of my editors texted me and said that they were going to have a press conference at the Gavilan parking lot and I should get over there. So, I took off.
The Gavilan parking lot is where people were meeting up with their families after being ripped apart at the festival. And there were still people waiting for family, people on edge not necessarily knowing if their friends or family were okay, or where they were going to meet up with them, or what was going on. There were still people there that were at a loss.
It was a circus when I got there. I don’t know how many people were there. It was insane. By this time it was really dark, but you could see cameras set up all over the place. These little oases of light, little pockets of light where they had corralled somebody to interview.
I could hear somebody behind me saying, “I don’t want to talk anymore. I don’t want to talk anymore. I need to take a break. I don’t want to talk anymore,” and them continuing to ask questions. “I have a few more questions for you. Just a few more questions and then you can take your break.” The person was so rattled by the press that she continued talking even though she kept saying over and over again that she didn’t want to. That bugged me.
I got my place in the line of people that were interviewing these two women. Two women that were completely surrounded by media. They were giving their account of everything. Everybody had lights and cameras. There were ten guys with video cameras and photographers. I just shot over their heads, which is how I got the shot with all the microphones. And I have another shot that I took that’s from behind them, when you can see all that.
I’ve been in situations where national media has shown up before. Important court cases, US Women’s Open over at CordeValle. I’m used to that kind of press gaggle, but this was so intrusive, and really out of control. There was nobody in charge. There was nobody controlling the situation.
Everybody was grabbing their position for the press conference, which was going to have the chief of police, the mayor was going to be there, and somebody from the Garlic Festival. People were beginning to jockey for position. I found this spot next to a cameraman. We were talking about his equipment and video camera. I didn’t talk to him about covering any of this stuff. I didn’t want to be aggressive.
I was getting texts from people I knew. I was checking Facebook for people I knew and getting reports back from Facebook, or people texting me. One guy came over and he basically told me to move because he wanted my spot for his video camera. I was stunned. I was pissed because I was being swatted away like a fly. I told him, “I am not moving. It’s not going to happen.” He looked like he couldn’t believe it, that I would defy him that way or not bow to the authority of the massive camera.
I got the photographs that I wanted to get, but I was really, really angry at that point. It had been building. Just the fact that it happened in Gilroy, and having talked to some of the people that were involved in it.
When I got home I had to go through the pictures that I shot to get them to the editor because they were going to put stuff on the website immediately, then the next day was the day the paper went to press. I got all that done and I was so angry and stressed out that I couldn’t sleep. At 3:30 in the morning I wrote that Facebook post. It was all my anger and all my frustration put down so I could go to sleep. And when I woke up the next morning, I had suddenly hundreds of people following me on Twitter, which is something that I never use, and tons and tons of requests for friends, and thousands of views and reposts on this thing. I mean, it went sailing out there really, really fast.
Then all of a sudden I’m hearing from Poynter (1) and The Washington Post, and it shows up on the Columbia Journalism Review. Out of all the people that talked to me, and all the people that wrote about this, only four people verified that I actually worked for the Dispatch. Somebody told me that this thing had been read 100,000 times. To think that you can have that kind of visibility online with nobody even bothering to check who you are.
I had people privately message me. There was a small number of people sending me really ugly hate messages. I was invited to join a Facebook group called Journalists and Trauma. I was getting messaged all over the place by people who had covered the Pulse nightclub shooting, and Parkland, and the Oakland warehouse fire, and war correspondents saying, “I get what you’re talking about. If you need somebody to talk to, you can text me.”
* * *
The City Hall Memorial Vigil was a real breaking point for me. The stage was set up between the library and City Hall. When I got here, about an hour early, there was a solid row of cameras lined up in front of the stage. The whole area had filled in. I went to the organizers and I said, “Are you actually going to let them set up in front of the stage like that?” And they said, “No, no, no. We’re going to move them. We just haven’t figured out how to tell them to move.” I said, “Well, just go and tell them to move.” Some of them lined up on the sidewalk near the parking lot where no one was going to be anyway. The parking lot was nothing but media trucks, fifteen, twenty media trucks with satellite uplinks.
The vigil started, and as soon as they started talking, all of the camera guys came out and formed a solid line, standing right in front of the crowd. As the vigil went on, more of them showed up. So they ultimately ended up with about nine people standing in front, including some people who set up directly in front of a guy in a wheelchair. There were probably twenty photographers with their cameras pointed straight at the crowd taking pictures through the entire thing of people mourning. There were photographers on the right side, including a guy with a video camera on his shoulder that was coming up to people within three, four feet of their faces, running the video camera, putting it in people’s faces, and going right down the line at head level.
It was outrageous because the media had created this solid barrier in front of the people who were here to mourn. And while they were mourning, while they were trying to light their candles or whatever, they were having photographs taken of them constantly. You could see some people shying away from the cameras. Other people playing to the cameras. No one was ignoring the cameras.
I just kept getting more and more angry. I was just fuming. My editor was here and he left halfway through because he was so upset by what was going on. He didn’t want to make a scene, so he took off. Behind me, maybe fifteen feet, was the family of one of the victims, the parents I had met at the hospital. Somebody set up a video camera in front of them. Dropped the tripod in front of the mother.
I sat for a big chunk of the memorial service asking myself if I was going to take photographs of the two people I knew who were parents of victims. And running it over in my brain, “Should I do it? Are they going to view this as me taking advantage of the fact that I knew them?” Because nobody else there recognized them. I ultimately decided that I had to, but I did it by going over to them and saying, “Can I take a photograph of you with your candles?” “Yes.” I showed them the photograph, and then I said, “Can we run this?” And they agreed.
Right behind me was this kid wearing a red shirt. He was probably five years old or so. He was with his father. They were sitting on the ground cross-legged. At one point, there were three photographers pointing cameras at him, less than two feet from his face. I honestly wish I had taken a photograph of those three guys sitting around the father holding this kid. It’s one of the most shameful things I’ve ever seen in my life. This kid who doesn’t really seem to know what’s going on, he’s trying to get away, he’s squirming in his dad’s arms, trying to get away from all this stuff, and they’re just at him because he’s responding. People are going to assume the photograph is this traumatized child, who’s traumatized by this event, but he’s traumatized by the people taking photographs of him.
People are here to have an honest expression of community involvement and mourning. They’re here because they want to show that the community is strong, that we will survive, that it is a community that’s going to support everybody in the community. You’re invading people’s personal space. You’re publicizing them nationally, publicizing them at a very, very weak moment, and you’re not giving them the choice as to whether they want to be subjected to that. There are people there, victims, the police who went after the guy, and in the middle of it you have the press being the show. Front row and the entire center. It’s something that you can’t avoid observing as you’re standing there. You can’t help but feel you’re under the observation of the camera. It was really, really difficult to watch.
What I was thinking about the entire time wasn’t the Gilroy shooting at all. It was about journalism and how I felt about being a journalist, wondering myself, when I’m out on assignments that are of some kind of sensitive nature, am I being sensitive? I’m sitting there watching this, it’s one of the things that’s rolling through my mind, “Have I done this? Am I guilty of this? And am I guilty of that by being here taking photographs of this? Am I guilty of this?”
The idea that the community is not allowed to naturally mourn, and the local press isn’t good enough to cover the story or is not significant enough in the wave of national media coming in. It dehumanizes the community. That’s part of the edge that somebody local has. That you have a level of empathy which the national media doesn’t have. I think as a local reporter you can do it with much, much less impact on the community than the national media has, because they’re simply looking for a face and a story. And if your face and story aren’t the ones they want, they will move on to the next face and story. One of the aspects that they miss is who the people are instead of just what the story is.
1 Poynter Institute for Media Studies
A portfolio of Robert Eliason's photography is featured in Web Exclusives.