Photographer talks of covering hate

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Michael Weeks of North Charleston leads an impromptu praise and worship service in front of Emanuel AME Church June 20, in Charleston. Weeks said he came to pay his respects and felt led to sing and said he was soon joined by others. Paul Zoeller

Michael Weeks of North Charleston leads an impromptu praise and worship service in front of Emanuel AME Church June 20, in Charleston. Weeks said he came to pay his respects and felt led to sing and said he was soon joined by others. Paul Zoeller

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Charleston pair to discuss year of covering race hate crimes.

Wally Perez

gperez239@student.alamo.edu

This Black History Month a photojournalist who witnessed the tragedy, racism and devastation last year in South Carolina will be among guests.

Photographer Paul Zoeller of the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., will speak at the opening ceremony at 10:50 a.m. today in the auditorium of McAllister Fine Arts Center.

Members of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan from Pelham, N.C., argue with members of the crowd at the Statehouse July 18, in Columbia. Paul Zoeller

Members of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan from Pelham, N.C., argue with members of the crowd at the Statehouse July 18, in Columbia. Paul Zoeller

The opening session of the college’s observation, “Charleston: Grace Through Tragedy,” co-sponsored by The Ranger, will also feature Christina Elmore, a reporter at the Post and Courier.

Zoeller is a former student of this college and a staff member of The Ranger from 1995-97. He graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2000. After working for papers like the Bryan-College Station Eagle and the Odessa American, he moved to Charleston as a freelance photographer, eventually taking a job at the Post and Courier.

The Post and Courier has shown up on national headlines in the past year with incidents such as the shooting of Walter Scott, the killing of nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Confederate flag controversy.

Phyllis Holmes takes a moment to pray with her 3-year-old granddaughter after placing a candle at a memorial on the sidewalk in front of Emanuel A.M.E. Church June 18 in Charleston.  Paul Zoeller

Phyllis Holmes takes a moment to pray with her 3-year-old granddaughter after placing a candle at a memorial on the sidewalk in front of Emanuel A.M.E. Church June 18 in Charleston. Paul Zoeller

“Charleston has had quite the year,” Zoeller said in a Jan. 21 phone interview. “It’s somewhat surreal when you have to deal with tragedies when you may not expect them to happen in your city.”

“It’s a whole different story when your town is the one in the spotlight,” he said.

After North Charleston police Officer Michael Slager fatally shot Scott April 4, when he fled from a traffic stop because of a non-functioning brake light, Zoeller said the staff of the Post and Courier had overexerted themselves covering all aspects of the story.

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“It can be exhausting — it seemed like when we thought we could take a breather, another incident surfaced,” Zoeller said.

The staff of the Post and Courier worked themselves to the brink again when the Emanuel AME Church shooting occurred June 17.

“I recall covering the funeral services for the victims — nine different funerals over four days, nine different families dealing with heartbreak,” Zoeller said. “Before then, I don’t think I had even been to that many funerals in my life.”

“You have to push yourself, mentally and physically, when dealing with stories of this magnitude,” he said. “Taking photos inside the church on a balcony, weathering temperatures over 100 degrees, knowing you can’t leave because you’re waiting for the best photo possible that will describe what you’re witnessing takes a lot out of you.”

Even now, Zoeller said it is difficult to look at photos from these events because of the memories that accompany them.

Zoeller said it felt like he shot a lifetime of journalism in one year.

One of these stories was the removal of the Confederate flag from the state Capitol.

Zoeller covered protests in Columbia, S.C., where black educators protested for the “Black Lives Matter” movement and the Ku Klux Klan came to town voicing their opinions and disturbing the community.

“I had never seen so much hate,” Zoeller said.

“There was a barrier dividing these two groups; on one side you have the KKK, and on the other you have the Black Lives Matter protesters,” he said.

Tensions rose and both groups loudly expressed frustration with the other, he said.

“The KKK were shouting racial obscenities and chanting ‘White Power!’ while you have protesters on the other side trying to tear down the barrier and attack them,” he said.

Zoeller said he had never covered anything that hard to see before.

Despite the anger and hate that followed after the Scott and church shootings, members of the Charleston community also united to spread peace and love.

Community members gathered to help Emanuel AME by donating food and drinks to show support.

During legal proceedings for Dylann Roof, the gunman in the church shooting, the families of the victims voiced their forgiveness and sent a message that they would not succumb to hate, two days after the incident.

Roof confessed to authorities that he wanted to ignite a race war.

Members of other churches came from all over to offer their support to Emanuel AME to ease the pain.

Zoeller said after a few months, Charleston is still trying to get back to normal, but it will be a hard thing to forget.

“I followed up with the church six months after the incident, sitting in on a Bible study group, in the same room where Roof committed these murders … noticing the walls had been redone, the room was fixed up, but you could tell,” Zoeller said. “The memory lingers; nothing will ever be exactly the same.”

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