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The Story Behind this Viral Photo of a French Policeman on Fire


Photographer Zakaria Abdelkafi’s shocking photograph of a French anti-riot policeman set ablaze by a molotov cocktail has quickly spread to every corner of the world. And yesterday, only one day after Abdelkafi captured the photograph, he shared the story behind it.

The photograph was taken during a march for the annual May Day workers’ rally in Paris, and has since appeared on the covers of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and countless online publications and European newspapers. In an article for his employer, Agence France-Presse, Abdelkafi said he had no idea what was about to happen.

“I always follow [a group who hide their faces behind bandanas and hoodies] because, from past experience, I know they always cause trouble,” he said. “They’re very violent.”

His dedication to following this group around occasionally gets him pushed down and beaten by the very people he’s trying to photograph. This time, he placed himself between them and CRS (Republican Security Companies) police, taking photographs as the protesters began throwing rocks, bottles, “anything that they could get their hands on” at the riot police.

That’s when a molotov cocktail went flying.

“When they threw the Molotov cocktail, I didn’t actually see it. I just saw the guy engulfed in flames and I just snapped away,” he says. “I kept on following the policeman who was burning.” He was screaming, the officers around him were screaming, the scene was as horrific as you imagine it. “He was a human being being burned alive in front of me,” says Abdelkafi. “And the demonstrators, they didn’t care. They kept throwing things at the police.”

Abdelkafi is no stranger to horrific sights—a Syrian refugee, he was forced to flee his country in 2015, ultimately receiving asylum in France and a job with AFP. He has witnessed truly horrific sights; this moment hit close to home.

“I kept thinking about his face and whether he would be scarred. I kept thinking of his family. I’ve had lots of friends who have become disfigured because they have been burned by bombs in Syria. So I know what it’s like. I wonder if they do.” he said in his AFP article. “I have seen many people die in front of me. I have seen many people wounded. But this policeman really got to me.”

According to TIME, the unidentified 41-year-old police man suffered third-degree burns on his hands and neck, and second-degree burns on his face. As for Abdelkafi, he hopes to meet the man he photographed. “I would like to go see him in the hospital and bring him flowers.”

Image credits: Zakaria Abdelkafi/AFP/Getty Images