It's another one of those images that galvanizes activists, embarrasses police, and makes competing photographers seethe with jealousy, and Portland Oregonian shooter Randy L. Rasmussen didn't even know he had taken it. The photo of a young woman protester getting hit in her open mouth, point-blank, with a torrent of pepper spray as riot cops pushed back protesters in Portland during Thursday's Day of Action has exploded on Twitter, blogs, and trade sites since The Oregonian posted it Thursday evening. But in the confusion and impending darkness on Thursday evening, Rasmussen was shooting blind. He said he didn't see the photo until his editor did, as they went through the day's frames together that night.
Update (5 p.m. EST): The woman in the photo is 20-year-old Elizabeth Nichols, her mother wrote in to say. Check below for more.
With protesters taking over a Chase Bank lobby toward the end of the business day in downtown Portland, Rasmussen said the scene descended into chaos and confusion as mounted police and riot cops descended on them, a line of armored officers pushing the protesters down the street. He jumped on a raised corner of the intersection and began shooting everything around him.
"I was just shooting everything that came to my attention because it was happening in like a 270 degree panorama below me. They had the horses moving into the crowd and I saw people falling down," he said. "This is all happening so fast that I'm not seeing what I'm shooting. It's getting dark so I crank the ISO up on my camera and at that point the camera's seeing more than I am." Someone yelled "oh man, they're pepper spraying," and right then, Rasmussen's camera battery died. "I have another battery and I swap them out, and at that point it's all over."
Rasmussen sent his camera back to the office with a colleague, not knowing what it contained. Later, he said, "I was standing behind one of the photo editors while he was going through my take and he just let out this whoop, and there was that frame of the protester getting hit in the face." They put the image online immediately, and it immediately grabbed the Internet's attention. In its own story about the photo's popularity, The Oregonian touted some of that praise:
The web editor for @yesmagazine, Brooke Jarvis, tweeted overnight: "
So, this will go viral: bit.ly/soelEi #ows"
"Deservedly," replied Clara Jeffery, co-editor of Mother Jones.
Sam Graham-Felsen, a writer and speaker and former chief Obama blogger, was also struck by the image. He tweeted:
"... Should win a Pulitzer IMHO #ows"
"Amazing photo of use of pepper spray," tweeted Jennifer Preston, a New York Times staff writer.
On Friday, Occupy Wall Street's New York Twitter account broadcast a link to the photo and a YouTube video of its aftermath:
So what about the young woman? It seems from the video and this local television interview she's Elmira Rodriguez, a 28-year-old protester who previously told The Oregonian she had been with the encampment since its inception about a month and a half ago. A Facebook profile we found appears to be hers, but without confirmation we're not going to link it. It's light on public information anyway, indicating only that majored in Spanish at Portland State University. In late October, she posted on her wall that she was "loving my new residence and job at Occupy Portland." She told the local Fox affiliate it was Occupy medics who took care of her after the pepper spray dousing. She described the feeling of getting sprayed: "Burning, like your skin is peeling, is the only thing I can explain it as. Very hot, burning." Sounds unpleasant. But it makes for great photography.
Update (5 p.m. EST): As mentioned above, the girl in the photo is not Rodriguez, as we initially thought, but Elizabeth Nichols, a 20-year-old originally from Arkansas who moved to the West Coast about six months ago and made her way from Seattle to Portland a month later. Her mother, Annie Nichols, said after the photo was taken, police threw Elizabeth to the ground and arrested her. Annie, who is housebound with multiple sclerosis, said Elizabeth joined Occupy Wall Street because of her parents' dire situation. "I have no medical care. I'm not eligible. My husband's disabled ... We live on one disability check. No, we don't live. We exist. Lizzie knows this. That's why she's doing this." Elizabeth, whose mug shot is posted at left, wasn't always an activist, Annie said. "She never took part in anything like this. Of course, it's Arkansas. There isn't a lot of that here." The Portland Police Bureau website says Elizabeth was charged with second-degree trespassing.
Photo courtesy The Oregonian.