Actor Will Smith made international headlines when he walked onto the stage at the Oscars and slapped comedian Chris Rock in the face. Reuters photographer Brian Snyder recorded the unexpected moment in 10 frames without even realizing that he had done so, and those photos have since gone viral.
The Slap Heard Around the World
Rock presented the award for Best Documentary during the 94th Academy Awards ceremony by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, honoring the best films released between March 1 and December 31, 2021, at the Dolby Theatre, Los Angeles on March 27, 2022.
During a monologue, Rock joked about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, and her bald head.
“Jada, I love you,” Rock rock said. “G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it.”
The joke refers to the 1997 war drama film G.I. Jane, in which actress Demi Moore plays a Lieutenant with a short buzz cut. Pinkett Smith has in recent years been very open about her alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss. She even posted a video on her Instagram last year showing the progress of the illness.
Rock’s joke infuriated Smith, who walked upon the stage from his front-row seat and slapped Rock, the impact of which was picked up by the microphone.
After walking back to his seat, Smith shouted at Rock in front of the stunned audience.
“Keep my wife’s name out your f***ing mouth!” he screamed. And when Rock defended his humor as a mere “G.I. Jane joke,” Smith repeated his demand.
Here’s a 1-minute uncensored video of the slap and incident (warning: there is strong language):
“There were 9 of us [photographers] in the projection booth, at the back of the theater,” explains Snyder. “I don’t think anyone missed it, thankfully. My picture was the first to get out — we were well ahead of our competitors. Our positions in the projection booth were pre-determined by the Academy.”
The Show (and Photography) Must Go On
Snyder actually did not immediately review the footage to see if he had nailed the slap with a perfectly sharp capture at the right moment.
“No, no time,” says Snyder, a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “Not at all. And my responsibility at that point is to try to document the aftereffects of the incident. What happened between Smith and his wife Jada and Rock while the lights were dimmed and the nominees were being announced?
“What did Smith and Jada do while the winners were accepting their Oscars? And what did everyone do during the next commercial break? I’m a journalist, so I was trying to tell the story of what happened from the slap onwards through my photographs.”
Snyder just continued working as this commotion had happened halfway through the ceremony and there was a lot more to cover.
“A little later, I got a text from one of the editors saying I had made the picture, and it looked good,” says the two-time Boston Press Photographers Association Photographer of the Year. “Remember though, the editors were just as busy as me with the show continuing. I got that text before I looked through the images on the back of my camera.”
At some point later, he did a quick scroll through the images just to make sure he had something, but it was a very cursory scroll. He didn’t look closely until well after the show.
“I mean, immediately afterward, Chris Rock presented the award for Best Documentary, and then the tribute to the Godfather movies happened and on it went,” explains Snyder who has been shooting for Reuters for 30 years. “It wasn’t until I returned to the workspace well after the show ended that the editors told me the extent of the impact of the incident and my photos. I was one of the last to know.”
Aside from that earlier text, no one talked to Snyder until after the show when he got back to the workspace. There the editors onsite were very complimentary, and it was a relief for him that all had worked out well.
However, he had no idea then how viral the photo would go.
“One of the editor’s Tweets of it had 15 million impressions last I heard,” says the shooter. “It’s crazy. My photo was on a lot of newspaper front pages — it’s still gratifying to see that too.”
The Camera Gear Behind the Shots
Snyder was shooting on a Canon R5 mirrorless camera with the mechanical shutter, which is capable of up to 12 frames per second. The lens was the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x at 400mm, and he was shooting at f/4, 1/250s, and ISO 8000 to properly expose the available stage lighting.
Snyder was shooting JPEGs to one card and RAW to the other for redundancy.
Like everyone shooting for the agencies, Snyder’s camera was networked to the photo editors on location who could see the images as soon as they were captured. In less than 4 minutes, the “slap” was released worldwide to Reuters’ media clients. This intense workflow speed resulted in only the JPEGs being transferred from the camera to the editors.
The photographer shot 6,000 frames [about 6,000 RAWs fit on a 256GB card] during that show.
“The exposure and color temp onstage and in the audience are very different,” explains the photographer. “The lenses I used ranged from 16mm to 600mm. There was a spider cam on wires between us and the stage [which had to be avoided]. Anytime I needed to include the video screen, I had to adjust the shutter speed slower to get rid of the banding.”
No Stranger to Widely-Seen Photos
Over the course of his career, Snyder has covered the past five U.S. Presidential campaigns, Hurricane Katrina, the Olympic Games, World Cups, Super Bowls, World Series, the Masters [he is covering 2022 at the moment], and Ryder Cups. This was his fourth Oscars; although this was the first time he covered the actual show — the rest have been on the red carpet.
“My first assignment for Reuters was to cover the start of the Boston Marathon,” the photographer says. “I didn’t own much camera gear, and those were film days, so I probably only got three frames of the start, but the next day I had the front of The New York Times sports section, six columns across and below the banner. I’ve covered another 20 Boston Marathons since then, using ever more sophisticated equipment, and I have never had play like that since.”
Snyder has captured other viral and widely published shots over the years. One of the versions of the “McKayla is not impressed” meme of gymnast McKayla Maroney reacting to her silver medal at the Olympics was a photo he shot. His picture of the fight between baseball players Alex Rodriguez and Jason Varitek is on the cover of Stephen King’s Boston Red Sox book.
“I’m very glad I didn’t miss it!” Snyder says of his slap photo. “I’m reminded of something an editor from earlier in my career taught me, that at big events like this, there is almost always a defining moment, and it’s important not to get too caught up chasing all of the other things that need to be photographed and miss that moment. This Oscars proved him right once again.
“The photographers in the projection booth are responsible for covering everything onstage and all the reactions in the audience. There’s a lot to juggle and still be ready when something totally unexpected like ‘the slap’ happens onstage.
“I guess I’d say that covering the Oscars show takes a lot of concentration. In the end, though, it’s a case of reacting, framing, focusing, and making the images.”
About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him here.
Image credits: All photos REUTERS/Brian Snyder.