The days leading up to Catalonia’s independence referendum pointed toward trouble on the day of the vote. The autonomous region in northeast Spain was pushing ahead with the election despite the country’s constitutional court ordering it to be stopped. Backers defiantly occupied schools designated as polling places. Police were called in to seal off voting stations, confiscate ballots and prevent people from casting votes. Thousands took to the streets, demonstrating for and against independence. The election, set for Oct. 1, was sure to be a defining moment for the region and the country.
It also posed a challenge to those planning AP’s visual report: How best to capture the expected chaos? How to navigate its major city, Barcelona, which would be flooded with demonstrators and police officers? How to get photographers and video journalists in the right positions, knowing they might be stuck there for hours?
These decisions fell to Emilio Morenatti, AP’s chief photographer for Spain and Portugal. A longtime Barcelona resident, he knew that navigating the city in the midst of a crisis would be extremely difficult, so he made two critically important decisions as he planned AP’s photo deployment:
–He instructed staff and freelance photographers to focus on polling stations near their homes or hotels, and to check social media postings about demonstrations or police activities around them: “Don’t drive far way to reach the action,” he cautioned them, “or you will arrive too late.”
–He and two other photographers, meanwhile, used scooters so they could more easily weave through clogged streets to get to areas of major disruption. AP’s main photo competitors on the story, Reuters and AFP, did not. “They always arrived late,” said Morenatti.
The result was some 200 photographs that captured the violence and passion of a remarkable moment in Spanish history. For planning creatively, making smart in-the-moment decisions and risking personal safety, Morenatti and his team of photographers win this week’s Beat of the Week.
Despite his thoughtful game plan, Morenatti could not control the weather. A chilly rain arrived with Election Day, further complicating the task of the photo crew. Despite that, and thanks to the planning, the AP’s photo play of the referendum was unparalleled.
Two photos became instantly associated with the moment: Plainclothes Spanish police officers trying to snatch a ballot box from a polling station, a woman gripping the sides of the box with both hands, grimacing with all her might to hold on; and another of a riot officer in helmet and black body armor swinging a baton at would-be voters.
AP’s photographers were witnesses to the chaos, which left hundreds of citizens and dozens of officers injured. They often were mere feet from confrontations between police and demonstrators, and had to watch out for officers swinging batons and firing projectiles. Highlighting the danger, photographer Manu Brabo was hit in the leg by a rubber bullet and was unable to work afterward.
The photo report for the day captured not just the chaos and clashes between demonstrators and police, but also the joy of those who have longed for independence in the region of 7.5 million people. AP’s photos ran on the front pages of major newspapers around the world, including the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, London Times, Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Le Monde, Frankfurter Allegemeine, Financial Times, Brazil's O Globo and Haaretz in Israel. CNN fronted one of AP's photos on its website, and The Guardian used another as the top image of its live blog for much of the day.
Morenatti also contributed video from the initial clashes in Barcelona, part of a report that produced 50 video edits on the day of the referendum. They included video of police clubbing demonstrators and pulling would-be voters from polling stations and flinging them to the ground. Morenatti and other photographers also helped text reporters interview witnesses and victims of the violence on their cell phones.
Among the photos was one far from the polling place clashes – an image that came after an AP newsbreak. Several media outlets, including one international news service, reported that the Spanish League soccer match between Barcelona and Las Palmas was being suspended amid the disorder. Madrid sports writer Tales Azzoni knew there was still a chance it would be played, so held off. He was right. The game would go on, but without fans. AP’s Manu Fernandez scrambled to get the unusual shot of the squads playing in the empty Camp Nou Stadium, another memorable photo on a day full of them.
Sharing the Beat of the Week award with Morenatti are the entire photo team:
–Felipe Dana, visual journalist, enterprise and news in the Mideast
–Paul White, photographer, Madrid
–Enric Marti, acting news director, Mexico and Central America
–Armando Franca, photographer, Lisbon
–Manu Fernandez, freelancer, Barcelona
–Manu Brabo, freelancer
–Francisco Seco, freelancer, Madrid
–Santi Palacios, freelancer, Barcelona
–Bob Edme, freelancer, Biarritz, France