You’ve probably seen the photo. An older man in a denim shirt, pistol in hand, cigarillo hanging from his mouth, leaping over the median on an interstate.
That photo of Robert Sylvester became famous—the final moments of a serial bank robber who was fatally shot by police seconds later.
Ten years later, the man who took that photo, David Proeber, said he isn’t traumatized by what he saw. Being steps away from a fatal police confrontation isn’t even the most dangerous thing he’s encountered as a veteran photojournalist.
What stuck with Proeber, he says, is Sylvester’s life. Not his death.
“What we did find out about Robert Sylvester is he was a very kind man,” said Proeber, the photo editor at The Pantagraph, then and now. “He took extremely good care of his family, probably to his own demise. I had one person in the community who told me that (Sylvester) liked to occasionally play cards, do a little gambling, but would give his shirt off his back to any one of his family members.”
Sylvester was an ironworker by trade. Court records showed he was experiencing financial difficulties back in 2008-09.
“At the time, it was during the Great Recession,” Proeber said. “Things were very bad for a lot of people in the unions, the trades, in Bloomington-Normal. Business had essentially stopped in this country.”
The shooting happened Jan. 5, 2009, on Interstate 55 just west of Normal Community High School. Police were hunting for a serial bank robber, and Sylvester allegedly robbed a payday loan shop that day in Bloomington. They had their man. After a multiagency high-speed chase, police confronted Sylvester on I-55. His realistic-looking gun, it turns out, wasn’t real.
The Illinois State Police trooper who fired the fatal shot was cleared in the shooting.
Many speculated that Sylvester had a death wish, that it was a “suicide by cop.” Proeber said Sylvester’s son called him the night after the shooting.
“(The son) wanted to know what my opinion of that was,” Proeber said. “I told him I didn’t think it was. Robert was a gambler. He was someone who would take huge risks playing cards, and I surmised his use of the gun to bluff people was basically a bluff. He was playing a hand of cards right to the bitter end.”
Proeber’s photos of Sylvester went viral, garnering millions of views at Pantagraph.com. They traveled around the world on The Associated Press wire. Proeber won second place—out of 3,000 entrants—in the domestic news category of the National Press Photographers Association’s Best of Photojournalism contest in 2010.
Listen to Proeber’s recollections from that day, and his thoughts on the importance of photography in modern journalism, in this Sound Ideas interview:
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