The Photo That Made Me is a new LightBox series in which renowned photographers discuss a picture that jump-started their career, garnered them international attention or simply sparked their interest in photography. This inaugural installment features TIME contract photographer Christopher Morris, who talks about a powerful image he made in Panama in 1989.
This picture was made in December 1989 during the third day of the U.S. invasion of Panama, and shows U.S. Army Sergeant Raymond Cabacar trying to protect civilians during a gun battle with the Panama Defense Force at the Panama Traffic Directorate. The firefight lasted for most of the afternoon. I was there taking photos and next to me were around 18 civilians that were caught in the crossfire. Several civilians were killed and Sergeant Cabacar was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor for his actions that day.
The invasion of Panama, in which the U.S. successfully ousted military dictator Manuel Noriega – who later returned to Panama, albeit to jail and not to power – was a pivotal moment in the Panama’s history, and yet remains largely forgotten in the United States.
I was one of four foreign photographers in Panama when the invasion started, along with Patrick Chauvel working for Newsweek, Malcolm Linton working for Reuters and freelance photographer José Manuel Rodríguez from Spain. I was there on assignment for TIME.
The day before the photo was taken, though, two of these photographers were wounded, and, very sadly, José died after receiving a gunshot to his head. So I was left as the only photographer still working. This all happened at a time when I was really trying to break out as a news photographer. After this, I was put on contract for TIME.
This image gave me a new sense of self confidence — it showed me that I could control fear, something that in my earlier conflict work I had struggled with. I had a clear understanding from earlier, similar situations that if I didn’t learn how to manage fear, that it would eventually lead to my death.
So I challenged myself to understand it, and later to embrace it. Fear, it turns out, can be channeled into a positive energy. Which is a good place to be in when making this type of journalism.
As told to LightBox reporter/producer Richard Conway. Follow him on Twitter @richardjconway.