Michael M. Santiago crafts history’s first draft as it unfolds￼
“Every time I take a photo, I think about how it’s possible these images could make it into textbooks later on.”
Photographer Michael M. Santiago moved to New York City from the Dominican Republic at age 7, quickly picked up English, and developed a passion for U.S. history. Santiago gravitated to photographs from the Civil War, where journalists turned to the newly emerging medium to document the brutal reality of a nation torn apart. Decades later, educators used these images to shape how they taught history. As a young artist, these photographs gave him a deeper understanding of what he read in schoolbooks. But it wasn’t until Santiago became a photojournalist himself that the pieces of his life fully came together.
Folkus is an ongoing series created with Getty Images that features Black photographers who put the focus on folks like us.
Santiago uses his camera now as a staff news photojournalist with Getty Images, crafting the first draft of history as it unfolds on the world stage. The expansive perspectives on Black, Latino, and immigrant experiences he offers defy mainstream media’s predilection for racist clichés and xenophobic tropes. With a focus on family, health, youth empowerment, race, and identity, Santiago uses photography to uplift, inspire, and celebrate historically misrepresented, marginalized, and erased groups while simultaneously offering a humanistic lens through which to view ongoing acts of violence and trauma.
Santiago creates images that still the restless eye, allowing us a moment of compassion, understanding, and fellowship. Like a great painter, Santiago thoughtfully composes each picture so that the sum is greater than its parts, constructing images that are of the moment and timeless.
Santiago was a member of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting for its coverage of October 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 people dead and seven wounded.
Here, he looks back at his journey, reflecting on the importance of being true to oneself, principles, and mission.
Could you tell us about your family and how they shaped your upbringing?
Most of my family was in the military and law enforcement, but I gravitated elsewhere. Being different shaped me. While we were all reading books, I was nerdier than everybody else. I was into sci-fi, cartoons, comics, painting, and drawing. My father was always a big news person. When he came home from work, he always watched the news and read newspapers. Now that I’m in journalism, I see that’s what my life was subconsciously geared towards. I get my empathy from my mom. When we moved from the Dominican Republic to the United States in 1987, she was a pre-K teacher and always worked with kids. Later she became a home health aide. She was always helping people.
How did you adjust to immigrating to the U.S. during your childhood?
My brother and sisters were already living in America, and we have other family members here, so we had been traveling to the States to visit before we moved to the Bronx. When I started school, I took ESL classes, but halfway through my first year, I was helping other kids speak English because I picked it up that fast. I don’t know if it’s because my father had been bringing me here, but I also watched a lot of Disney cartoons in the Dominican Republic. When I was 5, I remember walking in the store once with a friend. Another person bumped into them and said, ‘Sorry.’ They asked me what that meant, and I told them it meant perdón. They asked, ‘How did you know that?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know. It was in my head.’
On our block in the Bronx, people were always outside listening to music. I remember memorizing the words to ‘Children’s Story’ by Slick Rick and falling in love with hip-hop. Listening to hip-hop all the time helped me fit in. When we moved to Rockland County around 1990, people in the suburbs weren’t listening to it as much as they did in the city. These were the days Kwame [Holland] and I showed up to school rocking polka dots. I also had the Gumby [haircut]. I was the only one at school who dressed like that.
How did you become interested in photography?
I was one of those kids who always found a reason to get out of class and just walk around the halls. One day while I was doing that, I saw people walking around with cameras. I asked them, “What are you guys doing?” They told me they were taking a photography class and they were allowed to walk around just taking pictures. I wanted to do that. The following year, my junior year, I immediately signed up, and I never put the camera down since then. It was what I wanted to do. I remember taking my first pinhole camera photo, developing the film, and seeing the image appear in the darkroom. The process was amazing, like making magic. Every time I took a photo that was properly exposed and composed, it made me feel good. I started taking pictures of my friends and sharing prints. It was fun to see how excited they were to get that print.
When did you begin to think about the role photography played in the chronicling of history?
I always gravitated to photography in schoolbooks. The words I was reading informed me, but the images made me want to learn more. I think back to Civil War photos and how important they are to this day. I’ve always been interested in the Civil War and Reconstruction and how they shaped this country. At that time, we didn’t learn how brutal slavery was. But as I got older, I read a lot about things we weren’t taught in school. I saw images of enslaved folks and what they experienced at places like the slave market. Had those images not been taken, people today might not believe these things actually happened. That goes to show how important photographs and recording history are.
When I started working with Getty Images in 2020, someone told me that besides being responsible for covering news, we were documenting history as it happens. No matter what it is, big or small, down the line, people are going to look back at what happened in 2020. Every time I take a photo, I think about how it’s possible these images could make it into textbooks later on.
How did you become interested in pursuing a path as a photojournalist?
I went to the San Francisco Art Institute for undergrad, but I didn’t really fit in my first semester there and wanted to transfer to a different school. One of my professors said, ‘Don’t do it yet. Give it another semester. I see the work you are doing and you have potential. Take Darcy Padiilla’s photography class and I guarantee you’re going to stay here.’ I took the class, and it opened my eyes to the power of photography and what we could do as image makers. I fell in love with journalism but was at an art school and didn’t know how to become a photojournalist. I had a portfolio review with Judy Walgren, the former director of photography at the San Francisco Chronicle, in 2014. She told me, ‘You have got something here. You can do this for a living.’
Darcy Padilla and Judy Walgren were the first ones to encourage me and make me feel like photojournalism was something I could do. I knew I needed to continue my education. With the help of an Alexa Foundation student grant for my project Stolen Land, Stolen Future, a series documenting Black farmers in California, I was able to go to Syracuse University, study with Mike Davis and Greg Heisler, and get my master’s of science degree from S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. They helped me look at my work as a journalist and not just an image maker, and that’s how I got to where I am now.
Could you speak about being an Afro Latino photojournalist in a predominantly white industry and the challenge of reporting the stories you want to tell?
While I was still an undergrad, I went to see a photojournalism gallery show that had just opened in Manhattan. While I was walking around, I noticed that all the images of Black and brown folks dealt with violence and poverty, the typical images we are used to seeing. Then I got to the end and there were photos of college kids, all were white, which were totally different from everything I had seen in the show. I started looking around and noticed I was the only Black person in the gallery. I was like, ‘Damn. What is going on here? Who are these images for — and why?’ That gave me a look into how things were in the industry and made me want to research more Black and brown photographers like Wayne Lawrence, Joseph Rodriguez, Carlos Javier Ortiz, and others who were making the kind of work I wanted to make. I wanted to see people who looked like me in a way that people aren’t used to seeing.
In grad school, I was working on a story about the opening of a supermarket in a food desert as part of my master’s project. The community was excited. The community was overjoyed at finally having easy access to fresh foods, and everyone hired for the store lived in the neighborhood. I remember shopping that story around, and nobody wanted it. One editor told me, ‘In order for the story to work, I want to see people struggling.’ I looked at him and said, ‘That’s not what this story is about. It’s about having access to food and jobs. Something good happened here and you don’t want it.’ It still bothers me immensely. Three years later, an editor from BuzzFeed reached out and published the work the way I envisioned it. I was thankful for that.
Can you speak about the challenges of covering difficult news stories like the shootings at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde?
Prior to the Oct. 27, 2018, shooting at Tree of Life, I had spent the whole summer covering the murder of Antwon Rose, a 17-year-old Black teen who was shot in the back by an East Pittsburgh police officer on June 19. One day earlier, Jimmy Wopo, a local rapper from Pittsburgh, was murdered; I also covered that. Also, three days before the Tree of Life attack, it was the anniversary of my father’s passing; it had only been a few years, and I was still dealing with the loss. It was like 2018 was a whole mix of different traumas I was dealing with. I just pushed everything to the back of my mind and threw myself into work. That’s something many of us photojournalists do to cope.
Earlier this year, I covered the school shooting in Uvalde. Before I left, my partner looked at me and asked, ‘Are you sure this is something you want to cover being a new dad?’ I didn’t have an answer for that. While I was in Uvalde, every night after work, I met up with friends who work in the industry to decompress. One of those nights, I asked a group of five or six friends, ‘How many times have you cried?’ Nobody held back. I’d never asked my colleagues how they felt about the things we were covering, and it was refreshing. After Uvalde, it took me about a week to get back to my normal self again. I did nothing, I just hung out with my daughter and that helped. But it will always be there in the back of your head. Once in a while it will pop up and you start to cry out of nowhere.
Can you speak about what it means to have won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, only to be banned from covering the local George Floyd protests on the basis of “bias”?
The treatment we got was not surprising. It started with my coworker Alexis Johnson being banned on May 31. I stood up for her and was subsequently banned. Alexis and I were told this directly. A few days later, I found out a whole group of people were barred from covering the protests after standing up for Alexis. But management didn’t really tell anyone; everybody just found out. It wasn’t about me. I was just standing up for Alexis, and that’s what it comes down to.
While all of this was going on, I saw a thread on Twitter of former journalists of color talking about why they left the industry and things they had experienced. Would they still be in the industry if somebody had stood up for them? There is also an ongoing discussion about how Black women in this country are not being supported, and I had the opportunity to do so. I don’t ever regret doing that. I would do it all over again. I told Alexis from the get-go that I was going to have her back, and I did. It’s sad that it happened because I loved working there, and the community loves that I was there; I still talk to a lot of the people out there. I hate that it ended so badly. This is another controversy the paper had that could have been avoided.
Michael M. Santiago is currently based in Brooklyn, New York, and his work focuses on health, race, identity, family relationships, youth empowerment and more. A member of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff, Michael holds a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from San Francisco Art Institute and a master’s degree from Syracuse University.
Photo of Santiago by Drew Osumi | Story text by Miss Rosen