I contacted Jasna Hodzic after seeing her photo in the Nov. 18 California Aggie and asked if she’d write about it for my debut “How I Got That Photo/Story” feature. “Right now I’m in the middle of editing for tomorrow’s paper, which as you can imagine has been very very hectic,” she replied on Nov. 20. Three days later (Wednesday), she let me know that “I have been on and off the phone with so many different media organizations trying to get them to properly credit our photographs.” She was still interested in writing the piece, though — and sent on Saturday.
Something was wrong. I was kneeling inches away from seated protesters; I could feel their legs pushed up against my own. They seemed calm, smiling to each other and holding hands. Ten or fifteen feet behind them stood cops in riot gear, close to each other but as far away as possible from everyone else. They seemed tense, as if they did not know what to do; they seemed scared of the protesters. I felt rushed to photograph everything and anything I could because I had a feeling that something was going to happen, and something was going to happen quickly.
I have photographed protests before; I’ve been yelled at, I’ve been shoved, and I’ve been insulted. I thought I knew what to expect. Kneeling next to the protesters, I was not physically uncomfortable; no one was pushing or threatening me and no one was screaming in my ear – but I’ve never felt so uneasy in my life.
As a photojournalist I’ve always had a general idea of what was going to happen – a basic script in my head. This was different. I remember suddenly realizing my heart was beating faster than normal. I heard yelling, “cover your eyes, cover your eyes!” I looked up at the police and saw the front officer was carrying a bright red canister. I stood up immediately, along with everyone around me. Instinctively I pulled my shirt up above my face, unsure of what else to do. He started to shake the can. I did not move. My heart plunged into my chest and now something was very, very wrong. When you feel like I did in that moment, you run- you remove yourself from the situation as soon as you can and you don’t turn back. This thought did not even cross my mind; I did not debate with myself whether or not I should stay, I simply stayed. It was not an act of bravery, I just could not leave.
The policeman casually walked toward the edge of students, and at one point pointed the canister directly at the group I was in. I was absolutely terrified. Within seconds, the police pushed us all to the side of the crowd. One of the policemen positioned his body in front of me, his hand pushing my chest, forcing me back. Looking around him I saw the police officer step over the students. I don’t remember how, but I pushed myself to the side, finding a nook where I had a clear view of what was going on.
The officer disengaged the pepper spray and I pushed the shutter.
The day before, I was on the same Quad shooting the protesters setting up their tents. Three years ago I walked through it for the first time as a freshman. Never had I thought that this would happen on my Quad. Never had I felt so uncomfortable on my campus.
Three days after the pepper spray incident, however, I was one of 5,000 people present on the Quad for a rally against the increased privatization of public universities and the actions of police. Students from UC Davis came together in a powerful movement of unity and I have never felt closer to my fellow students and community members.
It makes me proud that my work has helped tell this story.
You can see more of Jasna’s work at JasnaHodzic.com.