The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The photo from Charlottesville that will define this moment in American history

A vehicle plows into a group of protesters in Charlottesville. (Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress)
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There are some images that instantly and indelibly define an era in history. Photographer Bob Jackson caught the moment when Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot President John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, in the basement of the Dallas police station, Oswald collapsing inwards on himself, his eyes closed, his mouth open in a wince of pain, or surprise, or both. In Saigon during the Tet Offensive, Eddie Adams took a photo precisely as a bullet from South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s .38 revolver ripped through Nguyen Van Lem’s skull. In 1995, Charles H. Porter IV shot a photograph of firefighter Chris Fields tenderly carrying 1-year-old Baylee Almon out of the wreckage at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, where she and 167 other people were killed by domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh.

Now we have that image for our own era: Daily Progress photographer Ryan M. Kelly’s picture of James Alex Fields Jr.’s Dodge Challenger slamming into a crowd of people who had come to Charlottesville to stand against the white supremacists who were rallying there. Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, was killed, and 19 others were injured, some of them critically.

Multiple people captured the incident on video. One clip, taken at a distance from the pedestrian mall where the protesters were struck, suggests the terrifying speed of the oncoming car as it whips down the street. Another, shot at the point of impact, shows a person being tossed onto the hood of a car before it crashes into the rear bumper of another vehicle, then accelerates in reverse. These videos are a short, sharp shock.

Kelly’s photo does something different, and perhaps even more vital. It gives us a moment when the world, quite literally, seems to be turned upside down.

Two men fly through the air, their feet swept out from under them. One falls towards the ground, his arms and legs akimbo, one of them bent at a sickeningly impossible angle. Another has been thrown up higher than the roof of the car, his shirt sliding down his back to reveal his tattoos. To the right, a woman is falling to the ground behind the bumper of a Toyota Tundra. Shoes litter the ground around her like autumn leaves. In the backdrop, limbs extend into the air among posters that read “Solidarity” and “Love” and “Black Lives Matter.”

A car plowed into crowds at a white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, killing one person and injuring 35 others. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post)

This period in America is increasingly defined by violence and rage. And while Kelly’s photograph captures those elements, it gives us something more, too: The picture is a visual expression of simply how strange America feels right now.

I don’t mean to say I’m surprised that virulent racism still exists in this country. At best, the United States has been able to contain and marginalize racial hatred; we’ve never been able to eliminate it, and I doubt we ever will.

Instead, I’m referring to the sense that there are no constants in American public life anymore. Victories, like those in the fight to secure voting rights for all citizens, prove to be dangerously ephemeral. The president of the United States is incapable of condemning white supremacy even in the most bluntly obvious situation. Our government is run by fools and zealots who are rebranded as “the best people.” President Trump probably could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.

And in Kelly’s photograph, the laws of gravity are temporarily suspended and human bodies aren’t oriented to the ground in the way we expect them to be. The rules do not apply, and anything is terrifyingly possible.