Posted in Behind the News

How I got those border clash photos

, by Lauren Easton

Early on New Year’s Day, an AP photographer at the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico, captured dramatic photos of tear gas being fired at migrants climbing a fence.

Photojournalist Daniel Ochoa de Olza, who was an important witness to the events that prompted the melee, has been in Tijuana covering the border for AP since Dec. 20, 2018.

He described what happened and what conditions were like as he made these pictures early Tuesday:

What transpired in the moments leading up to the tear gas being fired? Did you have an idea of what was about to happen?

I didn’t expect this would happen. On Dec. 25, I was at the very same spot shooting pictures of at least 25 migrants that successfully jumped the border fence and ran to the darkness on their way to San Diego, while a lone U.S. Border Patrol officer was not able to stop them. On the second wave, with some reinforcement, they arrested six out of 10.

Migrants run after U.S. Border Patrol agents throw tear gas to the Mexican side of the fence in Tijuana, Mexico, Jan. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)

On Tuesday there were at least 30 U.S. Border Patrol agents, fully equipped in camouflage with night vision devices, all-terrain vehicles, and some carrying long weapons and aiming red laser dots at people who were by the fence. There was also a helicopter flying overhead and pointing a spotlight over the migrants. The show of power was noticeable, and it was obvious that migrants would not have a chance of entering the U.S. without being arrested. When the migrants started climbing the fence, no one was sure of how strong the reaction would be.  

How difficult was it to make these pictures?

Shooting was not easy. The terrain is an unlevel construction site, a sort of sand mixed with round stones that makes it hard to run, or even walk. At night you can't see very well where you step. It may be a good place for jumping a fence, but for pictures it is less than ideal. It is pitch dark if you point the camera to the Mexican side of the border, and if you look the other way, you are completely backlit by the harsh lights pointing toward the fence from the U.S. side.

Darkness and tear gas are not the best combination for photography, but you just don’t think too much about the things you can't change. While on duty you can only focus on making the best pictures and telling the story.

Read AP's coverage of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.

Browse a selection of Ochoa de Olza’s photos from Tuesday's border clash: