In 1989, I was a freelance photographer just learning how to navigate the world of photojournalism. One day, covering an event on the streets of New York, I met a photographer who looked exactly how photojournalists are portrayed in the movies. Introducing myself, I learned that his name was Christopher Morris and he was heading to Panama to cover an election that country’s then dictator was sure he would win. With no idea where Panama was, let alone what was going on there, I told Chris I was also going and would see him there.
I rushed home to research the story and to try to figure out how I could possibly afford to go. Photography wasn’t paying the bills and I was still supporting myself by driving an ice cream truck and working as a bike messenger. I discovered that the dictator in question was General Manuel Noriega, a figure with an up-and-down relationship with the US and a bad skin condition. The New York Post, a local tabloid that loved him because he was prone to doing crazy things, had nicknamed him “pineapple face”. I asked them for an assignment and within moments had my first foreign gig.
But a few days before I was due to buy my plane ticket, the Post changed management and all travel was cancelled. I was crushed.
I ran into Chris Morris shortly after hearing the news and explained to him what had happened. He listened, then told me that he had an extra plane ticket due to an airline sale, as well as a bed going spare in his room and a free seat in his car, if I wanted it. I quickly took him up on the offer.
The election took place and I freelanced for AFP – making $50 a photo and learning from Chris at every chance I could. Noriega lost the election and responded by nullifying the results. That evening, everyone waited to see what would happen next. The would-be victors said they would go out onto the streets in an attempt to start an uprising against the Noriega regime. Chris and I agreed that no matter what happened we would stay with the candidates.
As we followed them through the city, clashes broke out between civilians and the police. Paramilitaries, known as the Dignity Battalion, were beating civilians, and Panama City was descending into chaos. Tear gas, water cannon and gunfire were being used indiscriminately.
Chris and I stuck with our plan, at one point even abandoning our vehicle and jumping into the back of a pick-up truck. Several hours had passed with us on the back of the truck when we reached an area of the city where a full street battle was raging. At that point we hadn’t taken many images and Chris was growing frustrated. He jumped out of the truck to shoot something and just as I was about to follow, the truck sped off, jolting me backwards. We drove towards a park, following Guillermo Endara, the president elect, and Guillermo Ford, the vice-president elect. All of a sudden we were stopped by a group of soldiers.
There was a tense standoff, but we had nowhere to go. I suddenly heard a great shout and looked towards a small green hill in the park. Men in shirts of purple and yellow, holding flags in one hand while some carried sticks and bats in the other, came running towards us. Gunfire erupted. It was difficult to understand what was happening and where the candidates were. Then I saw a man stumble out of an SUV. It took me a while to realise that it was the vice-president elect. His white shirt was covered in blood; that of his bodyguard, who’d died protecting him, and his own from knife wounds to his arm. He was trying to gather himself, and I was photographing him as I heard somebody say to me: “con permiso.” I moved slightly as one of the paramilitaries, armed with a pipe, began to attack. The vice-president was twice the age of his attacker, but he fought back and was soon on the offensive.
A soldier stood and watched impassively as they struggled in front of a cinema. It was showing, I noticed, movies called The Hour of the Hero and His Name is Danger. Then an army officer appeared, as if from nowhere, and arrested the vice-president elect. He was driven off and I was left to make my way back to AFP to transmit my images to the world.
By the end of the week, they had appeared on the covers of Newsweek, Time and US News & World Report. It was the first time in many years that one photographer had enjoyed such an honour.
Debate started to grow over what the US response should be. But it was only when George H.W. Bush, the then US president, announced an invasion and offered the events captured by my photographs as a justification, that I understood just what role photojournalism can play in such a conversation.
Panama, 1989 appeared in the latest issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine, What this picture means to me. For more compelling human stories, download it here for iPads and iPhones and here for Android devices.