CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Ryan Kelly had been working all day when he heard a car rev its engine and saw a flash of metal speed by. He didn’t know what was happening; he didn’t think. He did what photojournalists do: pointed his camera and shot.
What he captured on Aug. 12, 2017, was an image that would command the world’s attention, win journalism’s highest honor and symbolize the worst moment of this university town’s worst day: a gathering of white nationalists and the killing of a young woman who came to protest them.
In that microsecond of frozen mayhem, human bodies hang above a car in poses of almost balletic violence, a killing force portrayed as chilling stillness. Glasses and cellphones are suspended midair, bottles spout contrails of water, shoes are flung from splaying legs.
It’s a photograph both revelatory and cryptic. The image appears to offer a wrenching glimpse of Heather Heyer’s last moments as she was killed. But it’s notable for what it hides — others being injured behind the flying bodies. To this day, Kelly knows little about most of the people in the picture, even those captured upside down, their lives in peril.
“It’s still hard to look at,” Kelly said a year later. “So much is contained in that moment.”
It was shortly after 1 p.m., and the mood among counterprotesters was soaring. A volatile Unite the Right rally had just been declared an illegal assembly by the city’s overwhelmed police. The white supremacists and neo-Nazis who had descended on Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee were dispersing.
“We felt like we had won,” said Bill Burke, a thrift store employee who had driven six hours from Ohio to oppose the rally. He was walking with other members of the International Socialist Organization on East Water Street when they converged with other groups of counterprotesters. A celebration broke out.
“I thought of them as the ‘happy people,’ ” said Marissa Blair, now 28, a recent law school grad and paralegal at a Charlottesville law firm. “There were people dressed as clowns and people giving out water and hugs.”
Blair was with two friends who also worked at the Miller Law Group, Courtney Commander and Heyer. Blair’s fiancé, Marcus Martin, was also there.
Heyer, a 32-year-old committed activist for racial equality, was already dressed in black for her evening shift as a bartender at Cafe Caturra. She had just been preparing to head to work when they ran into the “happy people.”
“She decided to hang out a bit longer,” Blair said. “It was like victory. Hey, these are our streets.”
At that moment, a few blocks away, at least one person was not ready to cede them. A gray Dodge Charger with Ohio plates turned onto Fourth Street SE, heading south.
Kelly had also just turned onto Fourth. It was his last day on the job as one of two staff photographers at the Charlottesville Daily Progress. He was 30 and loved shooting local news and sports. But after four years, he was burned out.
He was slated to start a new job in two days as social media manager for a craft brewery in Richmond. He just had this last assignment to get through.
Then he heard the engine, saw the blur of chrome and steel. He lifted his Canon and locked his finger on the button.
Kelly captured more than 100 images in about 24 seconds. The first frames show a 4,000-pound muscle car punching into bodies protected only by sunblock and poster board.
The marchers in the front darted frantically away from the rushing bumper. Those behind them were directly in its path. Some never even saw the car.
But Martin did. He was checking his phone. “And then I heard tire screeches,” he said.
He didn’t have time to process the danger, but he reacted instantly, giving a mighty push to Blair’s back, propelling her toward a black Toyota Tundra parked to their left.
“I just felt a huge shove, and I was on the ground,” Blair recalled.
In Kelly’s sequence of photos, her blue cap is visible moving to the right as the Charger barrels into the crowd. In one haunting frame, Heyer’s head and glasses are visible near the center of the vehicle, directly in its path. Her eyes seemed locked on those of the driver, identified later by police as 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr.
Heyer was beyond Martin’s reach. “I just couldn’t get her,” he said.
Kelly had chased the retreating car for a block. When it was out of sight, he finally looked at the screen on his camera, quickly reviewing what he had photographed. He could see now what he hadn’t processed in real time.
“Wow, there are bodies flying,” he thought. Within a few minutes, he and his editor — who was also covering the rally — were sitting on a bench with a laptop, amazed at one picture in particular.
“That’s when it really hit me we needed to get this out into the world,” Kelly said. “I knew that was the image.”
The picture ran on myriad TV news broadcasts and was on the Aug. 13 front pages of newspapers in dozens of cities.
Kelly started his job at Ardent Craft Ales less than 48 hours after he took the shot. The break from journalism, he said, helped him gain some soothing distance from the trauma of his last day as a full-time photojournalist.
On April 16, he and his wife were flying home from Amsterdam, where he had accepted an award for the photo. “We landed, I turned on my phone, and it was just swamped with texts and tweets and calls,” Kelly said.
He had won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking-news photography, an accolade that leaves him both proud and pensive.
“I’ve also been very aware that it came at the expense of the death of Heather Heyer, of dozens of other people being injured, of Charlottesville being torn apart,” Kelly said, sitting amid the kegs and barrels of his new life. “I think about that every day.”