From his home in Washington, D.C., Corcoran alumnus Sam Corum, Photography BFA ’12, watched images of the turmoil unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri, flash across his TV screen. Like most of the world, he was shocked by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a young black teenager, at the hands of a white police officer. As the protest and the police response escalated, Corum, a freelance photographer, realized he was seeing history in the making.
Corum packed his cameras, rearranged prior commitments and hopped in his car for the 13-hour drive to St. Louis. He wasn’t on assignment. None of his clients were paying him to go to Ferguson. But he recognized that the drama in the small Missouri town would be a turning point in America’s racial dialogue. And he wanted to be on the scene to document it.
Through his service in the Marine Corps as a combat photographer and internships while studying at the Corcoran, Corum has photographed everything from Iraqi combat zones to the lives of parents caring for their mentally disabled adult children. His photos have appeared in non-profit commercial publications, including The Washington Examiner where he interned while in school. He has used the skills he learned at the Corcoran to hone his passion for telling stories with his camera, such as capturing the images of a hero’s goodbye or the bright smile of a community graffiti artist.
In Ferguson, Corum saw an opportunity to capture another kind of tale. His images could tell the narrative “behind a complex story that was being reduced to simple headlines and sound bites,” he said. Ferguson would be his first project covering social justice issues.
“The situation with Michael Brown was extremely sad—but, I saw a bigger story,” he said. In a community that has long been plagued by allegations of police profiling and racial tensions, the Brown shooting “was the boiling point for everything that’s been going on for decades.”
Corum arrived in Ferguson on August 18 at 4:30 a.m. After catching a few hours of sleep, Corum donned his old flak jacket from tours in Iraq—a jacket he never expected to wear stateside. Scribbling the word “press” on a strip of duct tape, he slapped it to the front of his jacket, strapped on his cameras and headed downhill. The police in the street were “better armed and armored than I was in Iraq,” he said, but it was the energy and volume of the demonstrators’ chants that electrified the night. “The protesters were marching up and down the block chanting, ‘Hands up! Don’t Shoot!’ and ‘No Justice! No Peace!’ But everything was calm.”
Corum’s first images captured the energy and enthusiasm of the protestors.
However, as the oppressive August heat wore on the crowd, tensions rose. Police prodded the crowds to keep moving. While the majority of the protestors were peaceful, Corum said, a handful tossed water bottles at officers.
“The crowd was so large that [the instigators] could throw one thing and disappear. So the police would retaliate against all instead of the one or two that had caused the problem.” According to Corum, the police surged into the crowd, pepper-spraying demonstrators and pinned people to the ground. In the melee, he snapped images of a fellow photographer handcuffed for turning his back to the police.
“These instances are the pictures that lead the front pages and all the broadcasts,” Corum said. But Corum also took photos of the peacemakers trying to calm the situation. “People from the community wanted to peacefully protest, they didn’t want the violence. The instigators detracted from the voices who wanted to be heard.” Some of the most poignant images that Corum captured were ones that displayed a group of 20 protestors lined up, held hands and raised their arms above their heads to create a barrier between demonstrators and the police.
Corum spent a month in Ferguson, observing suburbs where well-manicured gardens in middle-class neighborhoods sit side-by-side with dense pockets of poverty. To tell the story of the protests, he needed to trace the roots of the community’s outrage and anger. Although African-Americans represent two-thirds of Ferguson’s 20,000 residents, they have near-zero representation in public forums – only one black official sits on the city council and no black members sit on the Ferguson School Board. Only 94 percent of the police officers are white.
Corum attended public committee meetings where concerned citizens voiced their distress. His photos at Michael Brown’s funeral display the heartbreaking anguish of a community torn by sorrow and indignation—and determined for their voice to be heard.
“That’s the story I wanted to tell,” he said. “It’s not all blood and violence. There is…definitely a large amount of rage, but not with intent to destroy. It’s a community that cares.”
By the end of his month-long stay in Ferguson, Sam Corum was offered a staff position with the Turkish news outlet, Anadolu Agency. Ironically, the image Corum captured of the photographer arrested by the Ferguson police was Anadolu Agency Photographer Bilgin Sasmaz, who returned to his New York City office after his arrest.
“It just so happened that their DC bureau photographer was also going back to Turkey. They saw my stuff and liked it, so they asked me to come on full-time.”
Sam never thought his decision to go to Ferguson to satisfy his own curiosity and to seek a different narrative for what was unfolding in the small Missouri town, would lead to a job where he would continue to tell narratives of social issues, his camera serving as a mouthpiece to history.
Sam’s advice to Corcoran School art students: “If you find the need to go out and do something, just go and do it. Sometimes it’s going to take some risks to really succeed. There’s no way I would have found the position I have, if I did not go out and do it on my own…that decision literally led to my current job. Don’t wait for things to just fall in your lap, because they never do.”