Reuters photographer recounts capturing Pulitzer-winning photo


Credit: © Adrees Latif / Reuters

Adrees Latif of Reuters won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography yesterday for this picture, showing Kenji Nagai of APF attenpting to take photographs as he lies injured after police and military officials fired upon and then charged at protesters in Yangon’s city centre 27 September 27, 2007. Nagai, 50, a Japanese video journalist, was shot by soldiers as they fired to disperse the crowd. He later died.

BANGKOK (Reuters) – I landed in Yangon with some old clothes, a Canon 5D camera, two fixed lenses and a laptop.

For four days in September last year, I went to the city’s historic Shwedagon Pagoda and waited for the Buddhist monks who gathered there to lead the biggest protests against Burma’s military rulers in 20 years.

Since I was at the same pagoda every day, dozens of people, including monks, asked me who I was and what I was doing.

Not knowing who I could trust, my replies were guarded.

Barefoot in maroon robes and ringed by civilians, the monks chanted and prayed before starting their two-km march to the Sule Pagoda in central Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon.

Each day their numbers grew, from hundreds to tens of thousands.

The first small protests in August, against a sharp spike in fuel prices, had ballooned into street marches in Yangon and other cities against more than 40 years of military rule and economic hardship.

By 27 September, the city was packed with troops. Soldiers and government agents stood at street corners. The crackdown was underway.

Finding Shwedagon sealed off, I went to the middle of town to find groups of young people taunting soldiers at Sule.

Within minutes, the crowd swelled from hundreds to a few thousand. The soldiers threw barbed wire coils across the roads.

Knowing that hundreds of people were gunned down in similar circumstances in a 1988 uprising, I climbed an old crosswalk directly overhead, to get to one of the few spots offering a clear view.

Below me, protesters were singing and waving flags. Young men were thrusting their pelvises at the soldiers in an act of defiance.

Then two dark green, open-top army trucks approached, followed by dozens more packed with riot police.

They were hit by a barrage of water bottles, fruit and abuse from the crowd.

I had already locked on my 135mm lens and set my camera shutter speed to 1,000, aperture to F/7.1 and ISO at 800.

With the camera on manual, I wanted to freeze the action while offering as much depth-of-field as possible.

Two minutes later, the shooting started.

My eye caught a person flying backwards through the air. Instinctively, I started photographing, capturing four frames of the man on his back.

The entry point of the bullet is clear in the first frame, with a soldier wearing flip flops standing over the man and pointing a rifle.

In the second frame, the man is reaching over to try and film.

More shots rang out.

I flinched before getting off two more frames — one of the man pointing the camera at the soldier, and one of his face contorted in pain.

Beyond him, the crowd scattered before the advancing soldier.

The whole incident, which went on to reverberate around the world, was over in two seconds.

I kept low on the bridge, capturing some more images from among a crowd taking cover. But with soldiers firing shots and smoke grenades below, I had to get off the bridge.

Adrenaline pumping through my body, I put my camera in my bag and followed the protests for another hour and a half. Then I made my way back to my hotel through backstreets and along a railway line.

My initial caption read: ‘An injured man tries to photograph after police and military officials fired upon and then charged a crowd of thousands protesting in Yangon’s city centre September 27, 2007.”

Initially, I thought he was trampled. I had no idea he had died.

Two of the frames showed the man’s face. A few hours later his colleagues in Japan had identified him as Japanese video journalist Kenji Nagai.

The images dominated front pages around the world, playing a role in the public outrage at the crackdown which the United Nations said killed at least 31 people.

Editing by Darren Schuettler and Sara Ledwith.

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