Photojournalist Ben Gray washes off his arms after getting a dose of pepper spray on his skin Friday, May 29, 2020, in downtown Atlanta, during the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, who was killed after a police officer applied a knee to his neck for several minutes. Gray was exposed to to pepper spray multiple times while covering the Atlanta protests. (Mike Stewart / The Associated Press).
Photo: Mike Stewart/AP
Photo: Mike Stewart/AP

FIRST PERSON: Photographing protests with arms burning, eyes stinging

Editor's note: Ben Gray is a freelance photojournalist who was a staff photographer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 18 years.

Things were starting to heat up in front of CNN Center when one protester got into a shoving match with the police. He was quickly tackled by multiple officers as more surrounded them to keep the crowd away. I dropped to my knees to get a ground-level shot of the protester's face through the legs of the police, thinking I needed to be in position in case an officer put his knee on the man's neck, which thankfully didn't happen.

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As I got back up and started to reassess what was happening, more commotion broke out on the sidewalk in front of CNN where police were using their bikes to keep the protesters back. At that moment, people started to scatter and police started to turn and cover their faces and I felt the burn of pepper spray. My first instinct was to turn and get away, but at the same time I knew it was important to make photos of what was happening.

May 30, 2020 - Atlanta - Police set off tear gas around Centennial Olympic Park as the city of Atlanta was under a 9pm curfew as protests continued for a second day. Protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody spread around the United States on Saturday, as his case renewed anger about others involving African Americans, police and race relations. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal Constitution
Photo: Ben Gray/Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal

Something I heard one time while covering an active shooter training session, or maybe some self-defense class, popped into my head. Just because you get sprayed and it hurts, doesn't mean you have to stop. I squinted, breathed as shallowly as I could and moved a little closer while continuing to shoot. Seconds later the scuffle was over and I turned to find water for my eyes and peeled off my KN95 face mask, which seemed to be holding the spray and making it stick in my throat.

May 29, 2020 - Atlanta - After a peaceful march the Georgia State Capitol that swelled into the hundreds, protestors returned to the area around the Centennial Olympic Park and CNN center where some confronted police, who sprayed some demonstrators with pepper spray. They carried signs and chanted their messages of outrage over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal Constitution
Photo: Ben Gray/Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal

That was the first, and probably worst, of four of five doses of pepper spray and tear gas I felt Friday night and it left my arms burning and red, my eyes stinging and my lungs a bit tender. It also gave me the confidence to know how close I could get and how long I could stay there when things heated up again and again.

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