Melissa Farlow

When I graduated from college I was given sage advice, and I turned down an internship at National Geographic magazine to take a full-time job at the Courier Journal and The Louisville Times newspapers.  It would be almost twenty years before I was ready for the challenge of Geographic after working with insightful newspaper editors and photographers.

I was far from the first woman hired at the paper. Pam Spaulding was on staff and several female photographers had worked there in an earlier era. I was aware, however, that I was given a chance—an opportunity. I was inexperienced, and there were many more qualified male applicants. I felt great pressure to measure up to everyone’s expectations. That did not stop me from defiantly taking down the “girlie pictures” taped to the door of the staff lounge.

I look back at this time embarrassed by my youth and naiveté. I was arrested during my first week of work after lipping off to a policeman. Assigned to photograph a rock concert, I was refused entry by an officer who didn’t believe I worked for the paper. I guess I looked young, but I was angry because two other cops had just waved me in. The irate officer ordered me to leave the scene and threatened my arrest. I took twelve frames of the crowd while backing away—but not fast enough. A hand clamped down on my wrist with handcuffs. I sobbed for an hour in the back of a police car waiting for an accompanying female officer to ride downtown for booking. Scared and humiliated, I waited in the drunk tank after they fingerprinted me and took a mug shot. My one call to the newsroom caused a long delay in my release because of confusion. No one at the city desk recognized the name of the new hire. Later, charges were dropped when I signed papers agreeing not to sue for false arrest. The experience taught me to control my emotions, and to avoid confrontation by obtaining access and going around any obstacle.

Two months late, I got a call on my two-way car radio requesting that I divert from the high school football game for breaking news. An angry mob was blocking traffic to protest court-ordered busing for racial desegregation of the public schools. By the time I arrived, demonstrators were turning over cars and throwing bricks. The scene turned into a riot. I made a few publishable images by getting close, then retreating to safety. It made me feel invincible. While on night shift the following week, I was called out as street violence grew. I gravitated to fires set in the street because it seemed that flashes from my strobe inflamed aggression. Policemen donned riot gear, lobbing tear gas into the brick-throwing crowd. I stayed on the edges working, but then demonstrators spotted me and demanded my film. They surrounded and pushed me into their closing circle. I darted away during a scuffle chasing a lens that rolled out of my bag onto the street. As in a slow-motion movie, I can still recall each thud of my heavy, Frye cowboy boots as I ran to the safety of my car. A survival voice inside reminded me to get up if I were pushed down. Keys in my hand, I drove off into the night, unharmed.

In a debriefing the next day to editors, a reporter who witnessed the scene said he saw fifty people chasing me through the parking lot shouting, “Kill her. Kill her. Kill her.” I realized for the first time the seriousness of the situation, and this helped me develop street savvy that has served me ever since. 

Throughout the year, our staff covered busing beyond the violence. Touching images were made of children in the classroom making friends, teachers welcoming kids with a hug as well as parents protesting and KKK rallies. The staff won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976, and I had a half dozen images included in the entry.

Imprinted on my mind are the faces of young, fearful and confused African American children peering out the windows of the bus at protesters waving signs and yelling hateful words. It saddened and angered me to realize their parents were going to have to explain racism to them over the dinner table that night. 

I know that these experiences helped me to approach topics in an open manner and attempt to show no bias when listening to diverse opinions. I have come to understand that sometimes women seem less threatening, which enables us to gain access. This has made me want to connect with people to tell their stories and to attempt to illuminate the issues affecting their lives.

 Follow on Instagram: @wildhorses | @melissafarlow