Sign up for PM Award Updates!

The story behind the picture of the year, a Venezuelan in flames

April 12, 2018

The young protester is a ball of fire running through the street, his gas mask stifling his screams as his hands wave spasmodically in a futile attempt to extinguish the flames.

Just centimeters away, AFP photographer Ronaldo Schemidt captures what will become one of the most lasting images of the protests against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

The picture of 28-year-old student Victor Salazar engulfed in flames won the prestigious World Press Photo of the Year award Thursday.

Taken on May 3, 2017, the image captures the moment that a national guard motorcycle seized by protesters exploded, setting Salazar alight.

Schemidt, who is Venezuelan but based in Mexico for the past 18 years, spent two months documenting the protests in his home country.

But the defining image of his time in Caracas unfolded in about 10 seconds.

“I felt the heat, the explosion. I didn’t know what it was. I just saw a ball of fire coming toward me. I followed it with my lens and just kept shooting non-stop,” he said at the time.

“Then I heard the screams, and that’s when I realized what it was.”

He did not realize it at the time, but in one of his pictures he had captured Salazar, trailing flames, running just in front of a wall spray-painted with a graffiti gun firing the word “peace” from its barrel — the shot that won the prize.

– Venezuela’s ‘downward spiral’ –

Salazar survived the explosion.

Shortly after the moment captured in the picture, he threw himself to the pavement, and fellow protesters managed to put out the flames.

He suffered burns on 70 percent of his body, and had to undergo 42 skin-graft surgeries.

“His treatment was very painful, very traumatic. He screamed, he said he didn’t want to live. But now his wounds are scarring over,” his sister Carmen told AFP.

Salazar himself — who is still in treatment — declined to be interviewed.

The explosion happened during four months of nearly daily street battles between anti-government protesters and Maduro’s security forces.

Triggered by severe shortages, hyperinflation and Maduro’s growing authoritarianism, the protest violence left 125 people dead.

Against that backdrop, Schemidt came across a clash between a group of masked protesters and national guard troops in armored vehicles.

When a national guardsman lost his motorcycle in the chaos, the protesters seized it as a war trophy and started hitting it in celebration.

And that is when a Molotov cocktail set the leaking gas tank alight.

Schemidt, 46, says the moment summed up Venezuela’s crisis.

“That picture represents the terrible situation in the country, my country: trapped in a downward spiral of political and social violence,” he said.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.