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'What is happening???' Times photographer explains how he captured that viral Oscars moment

Veteran Los Angeles Times photographer Al Seib was perched stage right at the Oscars on Sunday night when  “Moonlight” was revealed as the winner for best picture, not the previously announced “La La Land.”

As jaws dropped, Seib shot and  captured the photo that instantly became a viral hit

Seib's photo of some of the stars closest to the stage at the Dolby Theatre captures their priceless reactions. Look at those famous facesMeryl Streep's eyes are bulging and Dwayne (formerly the Rock) Johnson appears to have heard a terrible joke, while Matt Damon and Michelle Williams are open-mouthed with shock.

The online dissection began almost immediately.

 

“That picture was made in an instant,” said Seib, who’s been shooting the Oscars ceremony for The Times for 30 years. “You don't even know its significance until after the fact.”

How did you get this photo? 

Al Seib: I'm stationed at what's called stage right, which is where a lot of the statuettes are ready to go out to the award winners. The presenters often come from stage right, and all the exits happen stage right too. That's why it's a prime position.  You get a nice perspective of the whole house from there. Because I've done it a lot over the years, they're kind to me and let me go up front.  

When was it apparent that you needed to shift your focus from the stage to the audience?  

I was [already] cued to look at the crowd to see where the reaction could be. I was a little befuddled, because I didn't know where the “Moonlight” crew was sitting. I had the “La La Land” people in front of me, so I could get Ryan Gosling's reaction. The best-film category always fills up the stage with a lot of people, so it's not the best photograph.

Then, all of a sudden,  I could see the stage manager running up and I hear, “No, no!” I see the other stage manager in anxiety. So there's this commotion, and I'm like, “What's happening?” Then I see the guy from PricewaterhouseCoopers, and he's standing right next to me. They're talking about the other envelope. “Something has happened!” I don't know if this is part of Kimmel’s gag. Then I realize something has gone wrong. When you're right there onstage, you don't actually hear what's happening. All you have is the visual clues. I look at the audience, and there's this look of shock. I shoot them because it's a much better picture. Then I'm looking for the “Moonlight” people.  

What do you like about this photo?  

I think it's a real different perspective that you wouldn't normally get. There are photos of what happened onstage like the great one [by Robert Gauthier] that The Times ran on the front page today. I look at my photo as a neat secondary photo. You couldn't run that photo alone, because what's the context? But these are the most important people today in Hollywood, and they have this look of shock. It's a reverse view that you wouldn't get unless you were onstage. With the Academy Awards, they run this thing better than the Navy. This is the tightest, most organized machine you'll ever see. I don't think they've ever had a flub like that. To have something actually happen out of the ordinary is virtually inexplicable.

What happened in the aftermath of your photo?  

I wanted to get more reaction of the “Moonlight” crew backstage. On the carpet, they were having so much fun, and I was thinking, “It would make great pictures if they win.” Well, it didn't happen that way. The jubilation was kind of gone backstage. The youngest of the cast couldn't really figure out what had just happened. I think there was this confusion that was emotionally tough for them. So I have pictures backstage of some of them putting their heads in their hands. There were tears, and I couldn't tell if they were tears of joy or “how did this happen?” It was like the wind was taken out of that sail. It was kind of a hard thing to experience.

See more Oscars photos from The Times here.

james.reed@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @jreedwrites.

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