Interview with Photographer Johnny Nguyen on his Viral Ferguson Rally Hug Photo
By now, many people have seen it. On November 25th, the city of Portland, Oregon held a rally following the announcement of no charges being pressed against former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown back in August. From that particular rally emerged a photo that has since gone viral; a photo of 12-year-old Devonte Hart tearfully sharing an embrace with Portland Sergeant Bret Barnum. The photo has emerged as a light in darkness during this time of riots and protests and has since been featured on TIME, Fox News, CNN, ABC News, and NBC.
Kollaboration recently had the privilege to interview Johnny Nguyen; the man responsible for capturing this moment on camera. In the following interview, Nguyen talks about how he got started in photography, how he went about with taking this particular photograph, and his thoughts about the issue surrounding Ferguson.
Can tell us a little bit about yourself? Who are you, where do you come from, and how did you first get into photography?
My name is Johnny Nguyen, a 20 year old Vietnamese-American and free-lance photographer based in Portland, Oregon. I’ve always been into the arts growing up. Either it being music, poetry, acting, I was always involved in the art programs at my high school, David Douglas High School. I’ve been interested in photography since I was a kid, but I didn’t take it seriously until I bought my first camera in 2011. From there, I read multiple books, and applied what I learned in the streets. That’s how I really got into street photography. Everyday I would go downtown and shoot anything and everything, messing with my camera, learning the way it functions, the way light works in an image. At this point, my camera is no longer just a tool, but it’s become my voice. Something every artist yearns for. I consider myself lucky. I shoot what I want to convey. I shoot things and people that inspire me or fire me up. I shoot because every image teaches me something either about myself or about the world around me.
Many people are probably more familiar with your work now after that photograph you took at the Ferguson rally in Portland of a 12-year-old boy tearfully embracing a police officer went viral. Can you describe how you approached taking this particular photograph and can you explain the story behind it for those who don’t know?
I found out about the protest through Facebook. I arrived at the Justice Center in Downtown Portland, Oregon around 3:30-ish, and when I arrived at the scene, there was already a huge crowd of people. Naturally, I went and started snapping photos. I got inside the crowd and got close ups of people. I climbed a tall wall to capture a photo that displayed the amount of people. And basically whatever my gut was telling me to shoot, I shot. I walked down the steps on the side of the Justice Center, and walked across the street to which I saw Devonte holding a “Free Hugs” sign around his neck, tears running down his face. Right there and then, I knew something was special about Devonte. He was a subject I wanted to capture because in the midst of the signs protesting, his sign was the only one I thought was the most positive. I took some pictures of him without him noticing. My mind was telling me there were more photo-opportunities in the crowd, but my gut was telling me to stay with Devonte for a little longer. So, I stood on the side of the road, about 10-15 feet away. I was taking more pictures of people holding up their signs. Then, I turned back around to Devonte, and I saw him speaking to Sgt. Barnum. At that moment, I knew something special was going on. There was something powerful about the scene – a White American police officer speaking to a young Black American boy. A stark juxtaposition that had to be captured. So, I started shooting. Before I knew it, they were hugging it out. As fast as I could adjust my settings, I got as close as I could and shot about seven pictures, but I knew I had something by the third time the shutter opened and closed.
What are your thoughts on the attention this one photograph has been getting?
I am very happy that the photo has gone viral. Not because I’m getting recognition for my work as a photographer, but the fact that the photo has impacted people all over the country. I’ve even gotten emails from people across the world – France, Norway, Netherlands. All of the feedback I’ve gotten has been positive. People tell me how my photo has helped them feel more hopeful, that it’s restored their faith in humanity, that it brought them to tears, that this photo is what the country needed, especially in the troubled times we’re living in now. I’m just glad so many people have seen this photo because it has sparked a positive wave, and I feel like that’s the best way to go about our struggles. To be positive. To love. To be compassionate. I feel like that’s what my photo displays, and I feel like people see that too. I feel like people needed and wanted to see something like this, and that’s why it got so popular.
I don’t know how familiar you are with this, but some people in the Asian American community think we shouldn’t worry too much about this issue [surrounding Ferguson] because it involves the death of a black man. However, there are others who say we should focus on this issue and take action, not only because of it affecting the country we live in as a whole, but also because it shows that there’s still a lack of equality amongst people of color. What are your thoughts on that aspect of the issue and what direction do you think it’s going to go in?
What we should learn from this, and especially children like Devonte, is that we aren’t as different from each other than we think. Children know no color. Children just want to play, they just want to love and be loved. I think we have a lot to learn from our youth. As for me, I absolutely support all people of all races. We’re all human beings. We all have blood rushing through our veins. We all dream under the same sky. What makes us so different is the way that we think. We need to find a way to educate ourselves. We need to understand that we’re all in this together, so why not help and work together? I think that if we continue to think like this, we’ll see progress.
Where can people find you or your works?
-Interview conducted by Lauren Lola on November 29, 2014. Photos published with Johnny Nguyen’s permission.