California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) senior Stefan Agregado has been named the national winner of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) 2011 Mark of Excellence Award for breaking news photography.
Titled “CSU students arrested in protest,” the photograph, framed between the legs of a California State University (CSU) police officer, shows two female students face down on the ground being handcuffed by CSU police officers. The shot was taken at a CSU Board of Trustees meeting last November where students and other protestors were speaking out about the CSU raising tuition and the state’s disinvestment in higher education.
Each year, the SPJ announces the national winners of its Mark of Excellence Awards, recognizing collegiate work published or broadcasted. This year, student journalists submitted more than 4,000 entries. From there, National Mark of Excellence Award judges choose one national winner in each category and two national finalists (runners-up).
A photographer for CSULB’s student newspaper, the Daily 49er, Agregado and the other first-place national winners will be recognized at the Excellence in Journalism 2012 conference in September in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. First-place national winners, including Agregado’s winning photo, are showcased on SPJ’s website.
“When my advisors at the paper told me about (the award), I could hardly react. I didn’t know what to say,” said Agregado, a 22-year-old art major with an emphasis in photography and a minor in journalism. “I’m not used to the recognition I suppose, and I never dreamed I would win nationals. I had no expectations of hearing anything from SPJ ever again. All I could say was ‘thank you’ and just soak it in.”
Agregado recalled getting the assignment to shoot the meeting from his editors, and he wasn’t looking forward to it at all. He had shot CSU Board of Trustees meetings previously, and he described them as boring. This, however, was not the usual board of trustees meeting.
“I got so many good shots that day I had no idea which one I wanted to use. This was a good problem to have,” he pointed out. “The moment was so energized I didn’t even think about the photos until I got back to the office. Sorting through 500 images, I edited about 30 for print and online. The other shots had great reactions, but everyone in the newsroom agreed the peak moment was the students getting arrested. That told the whole story.”
Agregado started out the assignment in the meeting room. He said the protestors were subtle at first, but when the open forum began, they became so loud and distracting that they were all kicked out of the meeting. That’s when the story started to change.
“The protestors felt their free speech rights were being challenged. I agreed with the decision to kick them out. They were really obnoxious and started ranting about things that didn’t pertain to the meeting at all,” he recalled. “The students started to really resist when the indoor protestors were kicked out and joined the outside protestors who couldn’t fit in the meeting chamber. They started shoving cops, which resulted in pepper spraying. It was amazing how passionate they were, but also very disappointing to see that they thought they could get their point across by fighting policemen who were just following orders.
“The girls in the photo shoved the officers so hard that they fell down, and that’s when the cops started arresting people. From there everything happened too fast to really think, but I knew that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I was not going to waste it,” he continued. “I dove right behind the cops and snapped away. Shortly after that, one of the glass doors shattered and there was some blood, and then the cops in riot gear came out. This was all done without as much violence. Nobody expected the door to break and it scared most people away because who would want to get stuck with the bill for that?”
Winners and finalists were previously recognized by receiving first place in one of the SPJ’s 12 regional competitions. Each first-place regional winner advanced to the national competition.
Agregado, who expects to graduate from CSULB in December, captured three first-place honors at the California College Media Association awards event on April 21 for spot news photography, best photo series and best sports photo. Earlier in the month, his photo was selected as the SPJ Region 11 (Arizona, California, Hawaii and Nevada) winner in the best news photography category, a win that put his shot in the national competition.
“Stefan is a talented and committed news photographer,” said Daily 49er content adviser Barbara Kingsley-Wilson. “He’s an art student who often works all night finishing projects. But, he ‘gets’ news and understands when you have to drop everything and grab your camera when something breaks.”
Agregado wants to be a photographer or a teacher after he graduates in December.