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University of Missouri

First Amendment Focus

The story behind the photo behind the video.


Photo by Tim Tai.

On Nov. 9, 2015, on Carnahan Quadrangle, photojournalism student Tim Tai was on freelance assignment from ESPN to photograph a small tent city protesters had constructed. The activists, Concerned Student 1950, had raised awareness of race issues on campus. That day, they did not want reporters near the camp, and their allies, including staff member Janna Basler and assistant professor Melissa Click, formed a human wall as a perimeter. Even so, Tai made not only images but also national news in defense of free speech. “I am documenting this for a national news organization,” Tai told the protesters. “The First Amendment protects your right to be here and mine.” Subsequently, flyers posted at the camp informed protestors about respecting the first amendment and welcoming reporters.

Q‐and‐A with Tim Tai

MIZZOU: A video showing you photographing Concerned Student 1950 supporters on Carnahan Quadrangle went viral last fall. Afterward, a lot of media attention shifted from the Concerned Student 1950 movement to you and the rights of a free press under the First Amendment. What did you think about that shift in coverage?

Tai: At first, I was surprised by it, given that two top university administrators had just resigned within hours of each other. It seemed liked there were more newsworthy issues at hand. Most journalists don’t want to become the story, and maybe it’s just because I was at the center of attention for a while, but it seemed like everyone stopped talking about Concerned Student 1950 almost immediately and focused their attention on the viral video. It was a very bizarre experience being caught in the spotlight when I and most local journalists here believe that the broader and more persistent story is about racism on campus. I don’t think any of us can control what is and is not a worthwhile story, and after a bit I had to accept that there was a valid story about what happened in the video. But I hope that, in the long run, people are more concerned about institutional racism in higher education than they are about me. I have no interest in being in the spotlight.

MIZZOU: Congratulations on the First Amendment Defender Award. As the assembled Concerned Student 1950 supporters began to push you back, what was going through your mind, and how did you remain poised in such a tense situation?

Tai: Well, as a photojournalist, my job is to produce the best pictures possible that tell whatever story I’m covering. Photography and journalism are by nature intrusive. Some situations are uncomfortable for both subjects and photojournalists, and it’s just part of the job. People often don’t want me around for a variety of reasons: They’re afraid of bad PR, they distrust the news media, they want their privacy while grieving, they don’t have makeup on, etc. Many times, I can explain or persuade away their concerns, but when that fails, I have to use my best judgment to produce the pictures I need to communicate the story to the public. At the [Carnahan] Quad, I knew that this was a far‐reaching event with national consequences and of interest to hundreds of thousands of people — as well a crucial part of the historical record. CS1950 gained national attention, spurred multiple similar campus movements and played a major role in displacing a powerful taxpayer‐funded official in the state. You cannot control a story that reaches beyond yourself. There was no substitute, no alternative subject, who might be more willing to be photographed. Once I realized that trying to explain my responsibility to the CS1950 supporters was not going to persuade them, I knew that getting bitter against them was pointless and that I needed to focus on documenting the situation and producing the best pictures to tell the story.

students on quad

Students react after learning of the resignation of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, at the University of Missouri’s Carnahan Quad in Columbia, Missouri. Wolfe stepped down after intense pressure from student activists critical of how he handled racist incidents on campus.

MIZZOU: What is your biggest takeaway as a photojournalist from documenting the Concerned Student 1950 movement at Mizzou?

Tai: Even if you’re the person behind the camera, the eyes of the world are always open. Cameras are very accessible these days, and you have to always present yourself professionally because someone may be recording you. Also: Going viral is not fun. It’s just a lot of stress.

MIZZOU: As a young photojournalist coming into this constantly evolving profession, give me one example of something you are excited about and one example of something you are scared of.

Tai: Well, I’m excited to start working full time at a newspaper, which is where I hope to start, and I’m scared of how the industry will adapt to the decline of full‐time staff positions at publications. Especially as reliance on audience‐submitted content and freelancers increases, I think we’re going to see a lot of contracts that don’t favor photographers. And I think it will be worse for local journalism. I love newspapers, and think it’s amazing to be invested in your own community, to be able to explore both the best and worst of it and be part of its historical record. I hope there will always be newspaper jobs, even if the paper isn’t part of it anymore.

MIZZOU: In high school you wanted to go to college for architecture or design. How did you decide to come to Mizzou to study photojournalism?

Tai: Former J‐School Associate Dean Brian Brooks recruited me as part of the Walter Williams Scholars program, and I had the chance to do research with Dr. Clyde Bentley as part of the Honors College’s Discovery Fellows Program. Plus I received generous scholarships and didn’t think it was worth paying $50,000-plus per year for a private university, even a highly ranked on. I actually didn’t realize photojournalism was a thing at the time and was hoping to get into something combining journalism and digital development or design, but I became interested in photography just after graduating from high school and ended up following that to where I am now. I still love learning about architecture, though. I took a class in the fall about historic preservation.