By Rob Passons
Patience Zalanga was a child when she discovered her calling. While her peers at St. Anthony Park Elementary School fervently followed the exploits of sports stars, pop stars, actors and cartoon characters, Zalanga’s heroes were journalists.
“I was about 9 years old when I started printing out transcripts from news reports and reading them in front of the bathroom mirror,” she said. “Anderson Cooper was my favorite; I read his book ‘Dispatches From the Edge,’ and I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up.”
Zalanga’s father teaches anthropology at a private college in a St. Paul suburb, and documentaries were always part of his curriculum. He routinely brought these college- level educational tools home with him, and his eldest daughter soaked them up. Zalanga attributes her inquisitiveness, and her passion for learning and understanding to the hours she spent watching documentaries and reading.
“I grew up seeing my dad reading a lot, and that had a big influence on me,” she said. “One thing my dad told me was, ‘If you want to be a journalist you have to read widely.’ ”
Zalanga graduated from Como Park Senior High School in 2011 still clinging to those ambitions. When she dropped out of a private university after a single semester, her hopes for a future in journalism faded—until she found her true calling with her camera.
Zalanga’s road back began in 2014. She enrolled at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where she took photography classes for the first time. She had a new camera that she used primarily to take prom and special-event photos for friends and relatives.
While Zalanga was readjusting to college life, the city of Ferguson, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, was waiting for the grand jury decision on whether Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would be indicted for the killing of teenager Michael Brown. Zalanga followed the case closely and expressed her views on social media. When a friend asked her to go to Missouri “to stand in solidarity with the people of St. Louis,” she said yes and took her camera with her.
Zalanga’s first brush with law enforcement occurred before she reached St. Louis. She was driving the carload of five activists (all of whom are black) when she was pulled over for speeding. What should have been a routine traffic stop quickly amped up. Zalanga ended up in the squad car.
When the officer asked her where she and her friends were going, she decided it wasn’t in her best interests to tell the officer they were headed to St. Louis to protest a black man being unjustifiably killed by a law enforcement officer. She told him they were going to a conference instead.
Not long after her first trip to St. Louis, Zalanga and her former boyfriend were driving back to St. Louis when he was pulled over for speeding. “My boyfriend was wearing a Cubs hat and he and the police officer ended up chatting about the Cubs,” she said. “He had a very different experience than I did; he was white.”
The black-and-white difference in treatment by the police left its mark on Zalanga. What she experienced in Ferguson left a far deeper impression.
Missouri’s governor called a state of emergency as the indictment announcement neared, and Zalanga and her friends found themselves surrounded by National Guard troops, military vehicles and police officers from Ferguson and surrounding jurisdictions. “They looked like they were going to war,” Zalanga said. “That was really frightening.”
Zalanga quickly figured out that what was being reported by the throngs of journalists and their news agencies was distinctly slanted, she said.
“When the police were Macing people and arresting people, that’s when the media would show up,” Zalanga said. “It was really disheartening for me because the journalists were getting all their stories from the police, and they had no interest at all in talking to the protestors.”
The dramatic images splashed across television screens around the country portrayed a group of people who have been systematically oppressed for generations, going back to the mid-19th century, when accounts of negroes being lynched wasn’t deemed newsworthy, Zalanga said.
Zalanga also finds what she calls the dehumanization of black people by the police and media to be especially disturbing. The uncovered body of Michael Brown lay in the street for more than four hours after he was shot and killed.
“There were a lot of apartment buildings there, so this was something you could see if you walked out on your balcony,” Zalanga said. “It was purposefully done to send a warning to the community.”
While Zalanga finds the actions of the police officers who were involved reprehensible, she’s also quick to point to the news agencies that splashed footage of the slain teenager coast to coast, hour after hour.
“You don’t repeat images of Michael Brown’s body on television unless you think people are going to tune in and you’re going to get good ratings,” Zalanga said. “It’s not about morals or ethics, it’s about numbers; it’s about how much money you can make off of somebody’s child laying dead in the street.”
In a sense, Zalanga found her voice with her camera. She watched while photographers flocked from one clash to the next with what she saw as migratory predictability, all of them essentially producing the same photographs and video footage. Zalanga made a conscious effort to turn her lens elsewhere: “. . . [P]hotos of an old man sitting in a wheelchair with a little boy in his lap having an intimate moment together while military vehicles roll by in the background,” Zalanga said. “Moments like that are really important to me.”
Those moments are found in many of Zalanga’s photos. She has an eye for juxtaposing gentleness versus aggression, passion versus indifference and vulnerability against a backdrop of might.
“I hope when people see my photos without context that they will take
note and try to understand, or just be inquisitive about, what they are seeing,” she said. “Part of what I appreciate most about photography is the ability to go back and dig further into a moment; there’s always something new.”
Zalanga knew that journalists sometimes find themselves in dangerous situations, and she wondered how she would hold up when faced with a potential threat. That question was answered when a phalanx of police officers descended on protestors outside the Ferguson City Hall. “I was shaking so much and I asked my friend why I felt like throwing up,” Zalanga said. “She told me I was in fight-or-flight mode.”
While Zalanga did not enjoy the experience, it taught her something about herself. “Coming to terms with what was going on around me and continuing to document it was very important to me,” she said. “It really forced me to push myself.” Zalanga wasn’t fully aware of how deeply the experience had affected her and how emotionally drained it left her, until she returned to St. Paul. “The first thing I did when I got home was burst into tears,” she said. “My mom just held me.” A year later, Zalanga returned to St. Louis for the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. The Ferguson police were out in force for the gathering, and while some of Zalanga’s companions were prepared to get arrested, she was not.
Zalanga was a passenger in one of four cars used to slow the traffic down on a highway specifically chosen because it was built for “white flight” to the suburbs, she said. The cars came to a stop next to an off ramp where the activists on foot were gathered. The crowd quickly moved onto the highway, covering all four lanes and the breakdown lanes, where they held the line for nearly 15 minutes. Zalanga exited her vehicle and joined them. “There were maybe six police officers there when we started,” Zalanga said.
“There were about 60 by the time we got back to the car. That’s when I knew we were getting arrested.”
Zalanga’s previous experience with the St. Louis-area police left her with a fairly low opinion of them, and her initial contact prior to her arrest did little to change her views.
“If you go to any state, police officers have a lot of the same characteristics,” she said. “But the St. Louis police are on a whole different level of messed up.”
One officer, however, showed a degree of thoughtfulness that Zalanga was not expecting.
Zalanga and her companions were back in their vehicle only a few moments when the car was surrounded by police officers tapping on the windows with batons and demanding the occupants open the doors. They opened the doors. Zalanga was the last to exit the car. She heard her companions screaming in protest as they were taken away. As she got out of the car, a police officer asked if she wanted to put her camera in the trunk.
“I did not expect the officer to be so considerate of my personal property, especially after my friends had been so violently taken out of the car,” she said.
Zalanga sat in the hot parking lot for over an hour before a bus arrived to take them to processing. She was never charged, but she spent 16 hours in the St. Louis County Jail.
Zalanga has traveled thousands of miles following her path to change, to cities she may never have visited if not for the deaths of young black men at the hands of the police. She ran from the police in Baltimore, was arrested in St. Louis, and faced pro-Trump protesters in Selma, Ala., on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. All were foreign ports for the Nigerian-born St. Paul woman. The shooting of Philando Castile in July 2016 brought her struggle home.
The traffic stop that led to Castile’s death occurred minutes from Zalanga’s childhood home. Zalanga’s father routinely drives Larpenteur Avenue, where Castile was killed, on his way to work. St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez justified the traffic stop, stating Castile had a “wide-set nose” that matched the description of a robbery suspect.
“My dad has a wide-set nose; my uncle has a wide-set nose; my cousins have wide-set noses,” Zalanga said. “It’s code — it’s code for something deeper.”
Thousands of people around the world have seen Zalanga’s photographs. She weighs requests for interviews on their merits, and speaks at exclusive colleges that in all likelihood would not have accepted her as a student.
“If you would have asked me three years ago where I would be now, I don’t think I could have imagined I’d be here,” she said. “It’s exciting and humbling.”
Zalanga’s vision for the future might be labeled unrealistic, or chalked up to the idealism of youth, but she’s undaunted. “I hope that a lot more people can lead their fullest lives,” she said.
“I hope that my people and people who are experiencing oppression around the world can live in peace. I know that the truth is sometimes painful, but it will set us free.”
On a more personal front, Patience Zalanga needs look no further than her immediate family for motivation to continue her efforts toward a more equitable world. “I hope my little sisters can live in a country and a world that respects their bodies, their minds and their humanity,” she said.
“I hope they will not feel constricted by the social constructs that would try to tame them. I hope they are allowed to be who they are.”
Rob Passons lives in Isle, Minn., and makes occasional forays into St. Paul.