The night Robert Cohen shot the most iconic photo of the Ferguson protests, "nobody knew exactly what we were about to get into," the veteran photojournalist recalls. Edward Crawford, the 25-year-old subject of the photo, had picked out one of his favorite shirts and driven down to check out the ongoing protests that followed Michael Brown’s death. Police had used tear gas the night before, but there wasn’t fear in the crowd—just the familiar weird energy. "We thought we were going to have our first quiet night," Cohen recalls. "It was cool," Crawford told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A generous protestgoer gave Crawford a bag of potato chips that proclaims itself "the flavor of America’s heartland."
All the parts were there when, just after midnight, St. Louis police fired tear gas canisters into the crowd, and Crawford went for one. He says it was near some children, and he cocked his arm to throw it away. Cohen didn’t notice Crawford’s shirt was adorned with stars and stripes: He was just trying to get the dreadlocked guy in focus and capture the moment when he hurled a flaming tear gas canister back toward the police.
Shortly thereafter, while editing a shift’s work of shooting, Cohen first noticed that the the man in his picture was wearing a shirt with an American flag down its front. It was too late to make the Post-Dispatch’s print edition the next day, but Lynden Steele, the Post-Dispatch’s director of photography, tweeted it out at 12:49 AM, Missouri time: "Wow… A man picks up burning tear gas can and throws it back at police," Steele wrote.
"And kept his chips," another user noted three minutes later. The immediate responses to Steele’s tweet were dominated by jokes and respect for Crawford’s demonstrable "G-shit" in holding onto his chips. Early the next morning, after scoring three hours of sleep and getting his kids off to school, Cohen checked Twitter to see what was popping.
"Oh, man," he recalls thinking. "I’ve been at this for 27 years, four newspapers, and I’ve never seen anything like this."
The next day and for days after, the photograph was celebrated everywhere. The original image was eventually retweeted over 10,000 times, and versions of it spread to T-shirts, posters, paintings, and city walls.
"This has become the icon of this event," says John Edwin Mason, an associate professor of history at University of Virginia. By the night of August 15th, when Antonio French—a St. Louis Alderman who has become a national voice in the protests—adopted a version of the image as his Twitter background, the image was effectively consecrated. By then, Crawford was describing "da man wit the chips" as an entity separate from himself.
When asked to name what makes the photo so powerful, people often hit on at least one of three aspects: Cohen's photojournalist eye goes right for the American flag. "This image has the life it has because of the shirt he’s wearing," Cohen says. Without it, "This would have just been a quick conversation on Twitter," he says.
What struck Mason, an accomplished photographer who studies African history and the history of photography, was that this iconic image was not about Michael Brown. "It’s about resistance. Fury. Protest. Fighting back," Mason says. "Michael Brown was nowhere in the meaning of that image. It could have been a protest over any social justice in the United States."
"The protests were about larger things that led to his death," Mason continues. "The kind of policing. The social and economic conditions that produce poverty. It’s about something that is broader. In that sense, then, this becomes an icon for the larger struggle."
And then there is the gonzo power of that bag of Red Hot Riplets. When Cohen tried to crowdsource his search for Crawford, the first reply insisted he "note those chips." Part of the appeal is the humor that works so well on Twitter—where a guy with the handle @eyeFLOODpanties (that’s Crawford’s username) is a natural hero. But it’s also a window into the specific energy on Ferguson streets, or what Cohen calls, "These little slices of the bizarre."
For example: "I’m out covering protest the other night," Cohen says, "When I see a small train coming my way, loaded with adults."
"There’s riot police out with shotguns and Thomas the Tank Engine strolling by, playing his song."
All that context—patriotism, revolution, goofy swagger—is a lot to pull from one image, but that’s just a sign of how our culture is changing, Mason says. "More of the news we are likely to consume today is visually driven," he says. "A lot of knowledge is non-verbal."
"And It’s yours for the price of a right click," he says.
That doesn’t make it legal, of course. Cohen’s image is protected under copyright law, and the Post-Dispatch owns those rights, according to Cohen. He says the newspaper’s attorneys have sent a few cease and desist letters to individuals who reproduced the image for commercial purposes without permission, but for the most part, the image is continuing to spread unfettered.
It’s become part of the background noise in Ferguson. By the time of Brown’s funeral was Monday, French had swapped out the image of Crawford in favor of the hashtag #HealSTL. Crawford attended the funeral, starting the day by posting an Instagram of his crumpled-up red white and blue outfit along with a hopeful message. Cohen was taking pictures at the funeral, tweeting striking images of family members that had adorned themselves with images of Michael Brown. "Right now I am just trying to get more than three hours of sleep," he said Sunday. He was trying to keep his energy up, and keep an eye out for the odd juxtapositions: "Those kind of incongruities happen in the middle of a serious news story."
"Like the chips."