Q&A: Ronaldo Schemidt, World Press Photo of the Year winner

Born in Venezuela, Ronaldo Schemidt is now based in Mexico where he works as an Agence France Presse staff photographer. He covers a wide variety of stories, from football matches to the recent earthquake in Mexico City, and has just won the World Press Photo of the Year for an image taken at an anti-government protest in Venezuela, showing José Víctor Salazar Balza (28) on fire amid violent clashes with riot police. 

BJP: How many times have you shot in Venezuela? Have you often shot protests there?

Ronaldo Schemidt: I’ve worked many times in Venezuela. I’m Venezuelan, so my nationality makes it easier to get in the country. Last year, I was deployed for about two months.

BJP: Are there often fires at the protests? Can you say more about how you got this image?

RS: Normally people don’t get set on fire during the protests, but there were many barricades on fire and the demonstrators use Molotov bombs. I got the photo when a National Guard motorcycle exploded during a clash between demonstrators and government forces. It was lying on the floor, on fire, surrounded by young people. One of the protestors hit the tank, generating an explosion. Then the guy in the photo caught fire.

I was standing a few meters away with my back to him, but when I felt the heat of the flames, I got my camera and turned around to start shooting whatever had just happened. It all took just a few seconds, so I didn’t know what I was shooting. I was moved by instinct, it was very quick. I didn’t stop shooting until I realised what was going on. There was somebody on fire running towards me.

BJP: How many shots did you take of him? How did you pick out the images you want to show?

RS: I took several photos – after the motorcycle exploded, I didn’t stop shooting amid the chaos and the fire. I must have taken about 20 photos of the scene. I chose in that moment the photos that I found the strongest and those which might work the best for news, and sent them directly from my camera to my editors. Afterwards, in the office, I could sit down and review the material I had got. Then, in the calm, I sent some more.

BJP: Do you know what happened to the man?

RS: A few days afterwards I saw him on social media, inviting people to continue the protests on the streets. I read he was recovering from his burns. Just after the explosion, he was taken care of by paramedics, who took him to a hospital.

BJP: You’re a news photographer, moving from story to story. How do you manage to jump into the story each time?

RS: I try to read about the story before I get there, get the context and be informed in order to understand what’s going on. Then I think how I could illustrate that clearly. Some stories are stronger than others, and they remain in my mind and memories for longer. This is a dynamic job, I must jump from one story to another one. But some of them are never forgotten, those where human tragedy and suffering is involved. Unlike a long term project, I must work quickly and intensely. I have less resources at hand – less time, which is one of the most important things in this job.

BJP: Your photograph suggests that things in Venezuela have become really desperate. Is that how you see things there?

RS: During those days there was a lot of violence on the streets. The protests were very intense, and you could feel that something big was going to pop up at any time. Now the situation has worsened. There hasn’t been violence, and there have been very few protests, but food and medication have become more scarce. Services are worse and worse. I feel that the population is disappointed and resigned, a lot of them are desperately getting out of the country, breaking families apart.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is the editor of BJP, returning for a second stint on staff in 2023 - after 15 years on the team until 2019. As a freelancer, she has written for The Guardian, FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, Aperture, FOAM, Aesthetica and Apollo. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy