NEW YORK – It had been a tense, challenging Thursday evening in the riot-torn Twin Cities for Associated Press photographer Julio Cortez. Midnight was fast approaching, and so was a lone protester carrying an upside-down U.S. flag.
Aware of the flag’s power as a visual symbol, Cortez followed the man down the rubble-strewn street and took a photograph that soon rocketed around the world – the protester silhouetted against the flames of a burning liquor store, the light of the fire glowing through the fabric of the flag.
Taken at 11:59 p.m. and transmitted a few moments later, it swiftly produced powerful reactions — perhaps the most indelible image yet of the racial divisions and violent protests flaring after the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who pleaded for air as a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck.
TV networks featured it on their newscasts. Twitter at one point used it to lead its “What’s Happening” page. Multiple commentators on social media depicted it as “Picture of the Year.”
Cortez had sensed an opportunity as soon as he saw the flag-bearer approach – photojournalists know that flags have distinctive symbolic power, as evidenced by the famous photograph of flag-raising Marines at Iwo Jima.
“I didn’t think of it as a contest winner,” Cortez said of his photo. “I thought it told a story.”
Cortez, based in Baltimore for the AP, had arrived in the Twin Cities on Thursday afternoon, along with New York-based AP photographer John Minchillo.
They spent about three hours covering unrest in St. Paul, then shifted to Minneapolis after hearing there was a new outbreak of trouble at a police precinct house there.
“We’d been working that scene for about two hours when this particular moment happened,” Cortez said. “The police abandoned the precinct — there was just chaos and fires and people throwing stuff.”
Minchillo then relocated, having been asked to provide some video footage. Cortez stayed near the precinct house, though growing uneasy as word spread that a gas line had been severed and might explode.
“When I saw the man walking up with the flag, I started getting closer,” he said. “I could tell this was going to be very visual, so I just followed along. I wanted to silhouette him, so I waited for him to walk where it was burning.”
David Ake, AP’s director of photography, said Cortez’ photo was powerful on many levels.
“The upside-down flag is the universal signal of distress and is framed perfectly and backlit by the flames in the background adding to the urgency of the distress,” he said “One foot in either direction and the image would lose that backlight and lose the impact.”
Ake also noted that the person holding the flag is unrecognizable.
“It could be any person of any age, race, or gender,” he said. “It could be you or me.”
Cortez has been with the AP nearly 10 years, including a previous posting in New Jersey.
Among his many assignments, he remembers a similar feeling of uncertainty and risk covering the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 when the city was locked down due to a manhunt for the suspects.