The parent who took a photo of Wisconsin high school boys giving what appears to be a Nazi salute on the steps of a local courthouse said Tuesday he was simply asking the teens to wave goodbye to their parents before they headed to prom and never anticipated the image would draw widespread condemnation.
But Pete Gust, who has a son in the photo, said he understood why his photo of about 60 boys outside the Sauk County Courthouse in Baraboo last spring offended some people. About two-thirds of the boys have their right arms raised in the gesture, many grinning widely.
“The optics aren’t good,” Gust told The Associated Press, though he said he didn’t believe the boys were doing a Nazi salute: “There was never any inkling of that whatsoever. … There was nothing intended in any way shape or form to simulate anything that was offensive to anyone.”
Gust maintained that his camera merely caught the boys’ wave prematurely, saying his “regret is I didn’t get to the apex.”
Many viewers of the photo felt strongly otherwise, with criticism pouring in from individuals and from Jewish organizations including the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland.
One of the students in the photo also rejected the suggestion that the gestures were anything but a Nazi salute. Jordan Blue, who is pictured without expression and with his arms down, said he believes some of the students did intend to make the salute as a joke.
“It was very disrespectful to what my beliefs are, and it was a very bad representation of the senior class and the Baraboo School District, because by all means, the Baraboo School District does not support that kind of actions and it is a district that provides many opportunities for the students,” Blue told the Baraboo News Republic. “This is something that I will never forget.”
Gust had posted the photo to his photography business website, Wheel Memories, after it was taken in May. He took it down Monday and posted an apology after it surfaced in social media posts and was shared widely.
The Baraboo School District said it was looking into the matter, and local police said they are helping with that investigation.
“If the gesture is what it appears to be, the district will pursue any and all available and appropriate actions, including legal, to address the issue,” district Superintendent Lori Mueller said in a letter to parents Monday.
About a half-dozen speakers addressed the matter Monday night at a school board meeting. Kevin Vodak, the board’s president, said the photo “deeply disappointed me, shamed, appalled and angered me.”
“The photo has shaken to the core my personal belief of the process that we as a community and as a school district have made to be tolerant, inclusive, accepting and admitting of all of those who are different from ourselves,” he added.
Earlier Monday, about 100 people gathered near the courthouse for a unity rally organizers said was aimed at sending a positive message about Baraboo, a community of 12,000 some 115 miles (185 kilometers) northwest of Milwaukee.
“The point is to show Baraboo is about love,” said organizer Sherri Schaaf.
Officials at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum tweeted their criticism of the photo on Monday.
“This is why every single day we work hard to educate. We need to explain what is the danger of hateful ideology rising,” they said.