Photo by ex-San Juan Star photographer on display in new US Marshals Museum
By John McPhaul
A news photograph of a confrontation between protesters in Vieques and the U.S. Navy taken in 1979 by former San Juan Star photographer Roso Sabalones was chosen for display in the new U.S. Marshals Museum (USMM), which opened its brand new $50 million facility in Ft. Smith, Arkansas with much fanfare on July 1.
The photo, titled “David vs. Goliath,” is included in a display that focuses on the marshals’ peacekeeping efforts during anti-military protests.
The photo, which depicts a fisherman firing a slingshot at a Navy troller, is representative of many clashes in response to the U.S. Navy’s 50-year occupation of the offshore island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra.
Taken in 1979 by Sabalones, a freelance photojournalist at the time for United Press International (UPI), the image was widely published by news outlets in the United States and Latin America.
In subsequent years the photo also appeared in exhibitions and other publications.
During a trip to Cuba, Sabalones even saw the photo on display at the Cuban Communist Party offices.
Although fishermen on Vieques initiated the 1979 protest, the group’s dissent drew in many others from throughout Puerto Rico who had grown intolerant of the Navy’s presence, blaming the Navy, among other things, for the high level of cancer rates on the islands.
The demonstrations ended in 1983 when an accord was signed between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. But confrontations materialized again after a Vieques native, security guard David Sanes, was killed by a stray bomb in 1999. After an extended period of popular protests, the Navy finally withdrew from Vieques in 2003.
Negotiations over the use of the photo between Sabalones and the public relations firm the Thinkwell Group that handled the talks for the U.S. Marshals took almost a year, said Sabalones’ spokesman, Gabriel Szoke.
Szoke was a middleman for the talks given that Sabalones, 76, has Parkinson’s syndrome and has difficulty communicating.
The negotiations took so long because initially, “they wanted the absolute right to use the photo however they wanted for as long as they wanted,” Szoke said.
Sabalones was adamant that the photo be used in a context and a narrative that reflected the struggle of the people of Vieques to remove the Navy from the island municipality in a way that might “run counter to the narrative the U.S. Marshals want to tell,” said Szoke, noting that the issue still percolates on the “baby island,” where the Navy has yet to complete its cleanup of munitions and hazardous substances.
“The real story should be empathy for the people of Puerto Rico and Vieques, no offense to the Marshals,” he said. “To their credit, they didn’t object to any of the [conditions advanced by Sabalones].”
Szoke said the Marshals needed “David vs. Goliath” because it was one of the only photos they had that depicted action.
Despite the difficulties presented by his Parkinson’s syndrome, Sabalones was able to describe the day he took the photo.
He said he was on the shore where protesters were confronting the marshals when a fleet of five boats disembarked from the shore.
Sabalones climbed aboard one of the small open fishing boats equipped with 15-horsepower outboard engines. The boat went back to shore briefly, allowing the fishermen to collect stones and pebbles before going back out to confront about five Navy trawlers.
When the confrontation between “David and Goliath” began, Sabalones captured the exact moment a fisherman drew back his homemade slingshot, made of surgical tubing and wood, before letting a stone fly in the direction of a Navy trawler’s stern.
The photographer was able to capture the determined expression on the face of the fisherman as he prepared to let fly the stone.
The Navy craft responded by firing shots over the heads of the fishermen and aiming water cannons at them, to no avail.
“The fishing boats were a lot more agile than the Navy boats,” Sabalones said. “We just ran circles around them.”
During his career, Sabalones garnered seven Puerto Rico Overseas Press Club Awards throughout his work with UPI, where he worked for 17 years. He later worked in various supervisory roles for The San Juan Star, El Nuevo Herald, Hoy, El Nacional, and Noticel until his retirement in 2013.
The U.S. Marshal’s Museum is a 53,000-square-foot, world-class structure that is situated on the banks of the Arkansas River.
The $50 million facility was financed almost entirely by foundations, businesses, individuals, and various government entities.
According to the USMM, the grand opening “culminates more than 16 years of fundraising, design, construction, and installation.”
Though Sabalones was invited to the opening, he declined, instead choosing to make the trip on Columbus Day, Oct. 12.
Szoke said the negotiations that preceded the use of the photo by the Marshals would not have been possible without his intercession due to Sabalones’ Parkinson’s syndrome.
Szoke, who now lives in Indiana, said Sabalones introduced him to Buddhism and became his teacher.
“This is my way of giving back to Roso,” Szoke said. “The karmic swing came back in his direction.”