‘Blinded by police’: my search for fellow survivors of an alarming trend

My mind raced in the seconds after I was shot.

I heard the gun go off and turned my head toward the sound, just in time to watch the spinning aluminum canister slam into my brow. Everything went black. I stumbled. When I regained my balance and opened my eyes, the sight in my right eye was gone. Something in my head told me the teargas canister was the last thing I’d ever see clearly.

Dit was 30 Mei 2020. George Floyd’s death was still headlining most news reports. The country was finally (rightly) paying attention to police killings. Intussen, during the protests that followed, another less deadly but still alarming trend was developing: “blinding by police”.

According to Shot in the Head, a report released in September 2020 by Physicians for Human Rights, during the protests between 26 May and 27 July of last year, US law enforcement officials shot 115 people in the head with “less lethal weapons”. Of these victims, ten minste 30 suffered permanent ocular damage.

As a professional photojournalist, I’d been covering the protests outside the White House when I was shot. It’s perhaps needless to say that any eye-related injury is basically a photographer’s worst nightmare, tantamount to a musician going deaf.

While I dealt with the aftereffects of my own injury and tried to make sense of what had happened, I came up with a new mission for myself: I set out to meet as many of the other people blinded by the police as I could.

Earlier on the same day that I was injured in the nation’s capital, 400 miles away in Cleveland, John Sanders was shot in the face with a beanbag round. Lead pellets from the canvas bag ripped through his left eyelid and ruptured the globe of his eyeball.

I met John, a 24-year-old former journalism student, last July at his friend’s house in a middle-class neighborhood in Akron, Ohio. A self-assured, tall and slender Black man, John’s presence was calming. We sat at a picnic table in his suburban backyard and compared notes about our traumas.

John tells me how, in shock and worrying he’d be shot again, he lay down in the street. “You know, ’cause my eye was literally hanging out of my head,” he says in his nonchalant deep voice. “‘Don’t make yourself a target, get down and hopefully someone comes over and gets you.’” As he flattened himself against the asphalt, blood puddled under his head. Eventually a group of panicked protesters gathered around him and carried him off the street. He was stabilized and taken to the hospital.

“It almost seems like they were doing target practice or something,” John recalls. “I literally felt like they were playing Call of Duty out there.”

In the first three months after being shot, he endured three surgeries: one to stitch up his eye; one enucleation (removal of the eye) and eyelid reconstruction; and one to fill in his orbit with fat from other parts of his body.

Nikita Tarver, 33, was getting ready for another surgery when I picked her up in my rental car. Since being shot on 30 Mei, she’d moved into her mother’s humble apartment in a gentrified Seattle neighborhood.

“The saddest part of it all was what my friend said afterward,” Nikita recalls. “She said that just before I was shot, she looked back and saw me, the only Black face in a sea of white protesters. They shot me cause I’m Black. That’s messed up.”

Nikita had responded to a message I’d sent to her through GoFundMe, where a friend had created a campaign to help pay for Nikita’s growing pile of medical bills. She told me she wanted someone to talk to. Someone who could understand what she was going through. So did I. For months, we sent each other quick text messages, updates on our trauma animated by eye-patched Memoji.

“I have people in my corner but they don’t truly understand my situation,” Nikita writes in one message.

I reach out late on another night to vent my frustrations: “I’m done moping around the house. but I get tired super quick!!! And then have to take a long nap. Sucks cause I’m not spending enough time with my kids … hopefully though things will slowly get better … I’ve picked the camera back up and that’s a good thing.”

We talk about our families and plan to start journaling our recoveries, but we don’t actually talk about being shot until I fly out to Seattle to meet Nikita in person.

As we talk, a tear rolls out of Nikita’s good eye. She sighs a deep breath.

“Every day is a roller coaster. I think I’m at about 100 days and I’ve cried every day.” Nikita is transparent in her fragility. “I’m fighting for my fucking eye, never in a million years did I think I was going to be facing this.”

Ekn the ambulance ride to the MedStar Washington Hospital Center, an EMT wrapped my head with a bandage. Accompanying me on the ride were two Metropolitan police officers, also injured in the protests. I glared in their direction. In my mind I ridiculed them for the minor bruises they appeared to have suffered. I didn’t want to show any weakness, even if it was objectively clear that I was in a far more precarious state than they were.

Op Sondag 31 Mei, I was released from the emergency room with an appointment to see a specialist that afternoon. Twenty-four hours later, I was in an operating gown getting ready to go under the knife. Retina specialists cleaned out the hemorrhaging in the back of my eye, reattached my retina and inflated a gas bubble against the back of it. Uiteindelik, a scleral buckle was inserted around my eye. This silicone band held the retina in place by applying pressure on the globe from the outside. It was a permanent addition to my anatomy.

Until the gas bubble was absorbed by my body and the swelling receded, my doctors were reluctant to give me a definite prognosis about how much sight I’d recover.

Matthew Leo Cima was also bedridden, albeit under stricter guidelines. While I lay on my couch in that first week after my operation, I found out about Matthew’s injury on Facebook and immediately sent him a direct message.

For the first week, Matthew had to lie facedown for two hours at a time, only interrupted by 10-minute breaks when he could sit or stand. He tells me that his brow is bruising from the hole on the massage table where he puts his face. He explains that he hasn’t been sleeping well for fear of rolling over in the night.

“I don’t know if you have had a similar reaction but I haven’t even cried yet because I’m so scared for what the pressure in my eye may do from it,” Matthew writes in one of his first messages.

Matthew was also shot in DC, while protesting in Lafayette Square on 31 Mei.

“I just remember feeling it from this direction, and then hearing the crack of my skull from the ball hitting it,” he remembers. “And then feeling ice cold, smelling blood, and then a bright light that kinda looked like the negative of a Rorschach puzzle.”

A trained cicerone (similar to a wine sommelier, a cicerone is an expert on beer), Matthew brought the same attention to detail used in his day job to his understanding of the medical care he was receiving.

“Submacular hemorrhages and a retinal tear in the macula,” he writes. “Also hyphema but that is clearing on its own. I had surgery on Friday (days after my injuries), it was a pars plana vitrectomy with a gas bubble. My doctor wants to wait for the gas to disappear before talking results and expectations.”

The more we chat, the more our conversations reveal difficult truths about the differences between our injuries. Whereas my detachment is on the periphery, Matthew’s is in the center of his retina. While I am getting better, he is facing more surgeries.

“I’m not excited to start over with surgery, recovery,” he tells me, “and the finality it represents is also very daunting. But I just keep reminding myself it will all pass soon enough.”

Matthew’s fortitude gave me hope in those first months. As soon as the doctors gave me the green light, I was on my feet again. Recovery was tiring, wel. There were many afternoons spent napping. The gas bubble inverted the light entering my optic nerve. For a short period of time I was seeing things upside down, an exhausting exercise for my brain, which was tasked with collating and interpreting information from both my good and bad eye.

Once the gas bubble receded, I was left with what I can only describe as drunk eyes. Like a multi-exposure photo, there were two sights superimposed upon each other: one lucid and clear, the other out of focus and hazy.

I’m sitting on the front porch of a brick house in Kansas City, Missouri, when I’m asked a question that stops me dead in my tracks.

“I don’t want to scare you, but have you ever heard of sympathetic ophtha-something?” enquires Sean Stearns, a professional dog walker and sketch comedian.

Sean is referring to sympathetic ophthalmia, a rare syndrome in which the body’s immune system attacks the good eye of a person who’s been partially blinded due to ocular trauma. My palms clam up. Sean can read my body’s reaction.

“It is super, super rare and usually happens in the first couple of weeks after injury,”Voeg hy by. I gulp down my beer and take another bite of the pizza Sean and his girlfriend have bought for us.

Sean, 33, was debating with his doctors and girlfriend about whether they should sacrifice his damaged eye to save his good one. On the same day as my injury, Sean had been shot in the face with a less lethal round during a protest. His left eye was now completely blind, and his ophthalmologists seemed to think that removing it could reduce the chances of sympathetic ophthalmia. But it would mean he’d have to wear a prosthetic for the rest of his life, not to mention the additional surgery to perform the enucleation.

Losing sight in my good eye was the real nightmare that kept me up at night. An itchy piece of dust and a mundane cornea scratch could easily send me into a full-blown panic attack. So when Linda Tirado called me to say she had caught a virus in her good eye and was already losing sight, I almost dropped the phone.

Linda, 38, a writer, independent journalist, mother of two and partner of a Marine vet, already had a lot on her plate when she set off for Minneapolis in May 2020. With little sleep and no guaranteed paycheck, Linda ran toward the teargas. She was lining up a shot when a foam-nosed round burst through her protective goggles and tore her left cornea nearly in two.

“We don’t talk about how often police escalate situations during protests,” says Linda, who has done many interviews about her experience and been outspoken in her condemnation of police brutality. Her critique of the police has made her a target of Blue Lives Matter activists.

Linda asked me to keep her location a secret because her public stature had attracted the worst kind of trolling. She told me death and rape threats quickly became a common occurrence in the comments of her social media feeds. But random angry white men showing up at her doorstep was literally hitting too close to home.

Months have passed since I did the interviews and portraits for this article. While we all shared the trauma of being shot in the face and losing sight, our experiences of that trauma were defined by the same inequities that tinge the rest of American life. Our physical injuries varied in severity, but so did our access to quality medical care, trustworthy legal counsel, and supportive social networks.

Personally, I tried a therapist for the first time in my life. We had two Zoom sessions and then I ghosted him. Our conversations felt forced and distant. I needed instant feedback.

In plaas daarvan, meeting and interviewing other people who’d been “blinded by police” became a form of self-therapy. As John Sanders had told me in Akron: “Sometimes it all piles on, all on one day, all at one time. It can be a lot to deal with.” Taking pictures and telling stories helped me process – it helped keep the piling up of emotions manageable.

In Oktober 2020, I created a chat group on a secure messaging platform for what we called the “Shot-In-The-Eye-Squad”. Inspired by the organizing of Chile’s Coordinadora de Victimas por Trauma Ocular, a grassroots organization for those who have lost eyes to ‘less lethal’ weapons, I wanted to connect all of the people I’d interviewed. I hoped sharing their stories with each other could be as therapeutic for them as it had been for me.

In no time the group grew to 12 participants and became a space to celebrate individual triumphs like a successful surgery, or to soften the momentary defeats of bad news from a doctor. We compared diagnoses and indulged in off-color eye humor. There were moments of mourning, but we were building solidarity, and that solidarity has helped to offset some of the inequities of our circumstances.

In the months that followed, the group continued to grow organically. Instead of me adding new members to the chat, other members found more people who had been shot in the eye and encouraged them to join the group. For the first time in my professional life, I felt like my work was having a tangible impact on the world.

Usually photojournalists spend infinite amounts of time researching and developing story pitches. On a rare occasion though, the story of your career quite literally smacks you in the face.

This is an excerpt of a longform story that originally appeared on Narratively, supported by the Pulitzer Center. Read the whole piece – or listen to an audio version – here. Looking for more great work? Here are some suggestions:

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