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How documentary photographer James Tensuan (‘20) got the image that dominated a New York Times global package.

Photo: Clara Mokri (’21)

On Sept. 18, two days before the global climate march, New York Times photo editor Matthew McCann sat at his desk in Manhattan, trying to figure out which photographers he would commission for the Times’ online climate package. McCann was responsible for collecting and editing the work of photographers in 21 different countries, operating in a variety of time zones, before the end of the work day. For the San Francisco march, he chose James Tensuan, a second-year student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, who was previously a part of the New York Times Journalism Institute.

When Tensuan first started working as a freelance photojournalist, he would often hear from a photo editor the same morning that a shoot was scheduled. Eager for a byline, he would immediately jump out of bed, throw on his pants, and slide into the car.

“Sometimes I would feel a lump underneath me once I started driving, and I’d reach down and find my boxers from the night before stuffed into my pant leg,” he says.

The climate march was different. McCann, who had been planning the climate package for weeks, gave Tensuan ample time to prepare.

“Even though I’d never met him in person, I have always admired his work from afar,” says McCann. “I chose James because besides being a good photographer, through his work I see an energy and enthusiasm that I knew would allow him to execute the assignment—a kinetic event with a tight deadline.”

The day before the strike, Tensuan prepared for the shoot. He got his gear ready, and started to think about what photographic elements would best communicate that young people are at the forefront of the climate movement because they fear for their futures on this planet.

“I wanted to get to the front of the march. The photo had to be emotive and dynamic. The light needed to be even.”

In the late morning, even light is hard to achieve. The sun is almost at its peak, creating more contrast and stronger shadows.

Tensuan also knew that because the march in San Francisco would be one of the last ones in the world to begin, he would have to file his first set of images to Matt before the march had ended. He planned to arrive early, so that he could scope out the route ahead of time, and pinpoint the best place to get a strong wifi connection.

On the morning of Sept. 20, an hour before the march actually began, hundreds of students across the Bay Area—equipped with their homemade picket signs wielding creative and catchy slogans such as “The climate is changing, so why aren’t we?” and, “Do not mess with my future”–prepared to walk out of their classrooms. Tensuan readied himself at the frontlines with his camera. Even then, Market Street was beginning to fill with people.

According to an account in The Guardian, over 1 million students around the world participated in more than 2,000 climate strikes across 125 countries. Protesters gathered to urge local and federal governments to take legislative action against climate change. San Francisco alone drew tens of thousands of marchers to its downtown.

About 30 minutes into the march, Asorafaye Raybility, a student at West Oakland Middle School, found her way to the front of the mass of people, where Tensuan was standing.

Suddenly, the mass of people passed behind a tall building, casting everyone in the shade.

The girls began to chant into the megaphone, and as Tensuan put his eye to the viewfinder, he knew: It was emotive and dynamic, everything lined up for a split second.

That’s going to be the shot, he thought to himself, as he fired the shutter of his camera.

The moment was fleeting. As quickly as they had entered the shade, the protesters passed back into the strong late-morning light.

The march went up Market Street before making a couple of turns. At 10:50 a.m., Tensuan ducked into a Starbucks before the first turn to edit and file his first batch of photos. He imported nearly a thousand photos onto his computer, cut the number down to 18, inserted captions, made adjustments in Lightroom, Adobe’s photo-editing and cataloging software, and filed to Matt at 12:22 p.m. Then, he set out for the final leg of the march.

The march ended at 1 p.m. Tensuan filed another 12 photos to Matt at 1:52 p.m. Out of nearly 1,500 total images, he had narrowed his selection down to 30. He put his camera away, closed his computer, and headed home for a mug of coffee.

Tensuan’s finished product was just what McCann had been hoping for. Shortly after filing, Tensuan’s photo of Asorafaye went live on The Times’ Instagram story, broadcast to its 6.9 million followers. Later that day, another one of Tensuan’s images ran with McCann’s online package, along with images from the 21 photographers he commissioned around the world.

The following morning, Tensuan woke up to something every photographer dreams of, but few get a chance to experience: the thrill of opening The New York Times in print, and seeing one of your photographs spread out across half of the page.

“It was cool,” he says.

Following the march, the students at West Oakland Middle School were excited and energized by the volume and diversity of people who took part. Seeing so many young people leading the march inspired them to keep the conversation going once they returned to Oakland.

“They had no idea how big it was going to be,” says school Vice Principal Jessica Wright-Davis. “It made them feel hopeful, to see how many different kinds of people actually cared.”

By Clara Mokri (‘21)

Oakland middle schooler Asorahfaye Raybility marches down Market Street in San Francisco, Calif. on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. Protesters took to the street to demand action on climate change.