Peter Gust, who took the photo now being shared widely online because it appears to show a full class of Baraboo High School juniors giving a Nazi salute, says the photo has been taken out of context and that he simply instructed the boys to wave goodbye to their parents.
In an exclusive interview with Madison365, Gust said he was at the traditional pre-prom picture taking event at the Sauk County Courthouse in downtown Baraboo at about 4 pm on a Saturday in May as a parent, not a photographer. His son is in the Baraboo High School class of 2019.
“It was a bit helter skelter, which is not how I like to operate as a photographer,” he said. He said many parents, seeing him there with his professional equipment, began asking him to take photos of their children. Eventually he ended up assembling all the girls and then all the boys onto the courthouse steps for large group photos.
“And the last picture that I shot, I said, ‘All right boys, you’re on the steps. … give me a high sign, a wave that you’re saying goodbye to your parents,'” he said. “And I called it high five, ‘give me a high five.’ … And so I stuck my hand up, and I said, ‘this is what I want.'”
The resulting photos shows almost all of the boys with their right arms extended, some straight up, but most more or less straight forward, palms down. At least two boys made fists.
Gust was adamant that he did not intend for the boys to issue any kind of salute.
“I didn’t tell them to salute anything,” he said. “There was none of that that was taken at that point in time that it was a salute of any kind. It was waving goodbye to their parents (and) having a good time. High five. There was nothing that diminished the quality of anyone’s life. There was nothing that diminished anyone’s stature in society, there was nothing that was intended to point a finger at anyone in their class who may have some kind of difference. There was none of that.”
One of the students in the photo says that’s not how he remembers it.
“No he didn’t” instruct students to wave goodbye to their parents, said Jordan Blue, a BHS student who can be seen in the photo not participating in the salute, in a Facebook message to Madison365. Blue said Gust only told the group to raise one hand for a photo.
“Which doesn’t give a bunch of teenagers a lot of guidance on how to raise their hands,” Blue said, adding that no matter what Gust instructed, he felt at the time that many of the boys were intentionally doing a Nazi salute. “I felt upset, unsafe, disappointed and scared. I felt unsafe because I go to school with them, I don’t believe in what they represented and the symbol they shared … they knew it was wrong, but they still did it.”
Gust’s wife Elizabeth Gust said the scene was noisy and some students may not have heard her husband’s instructions accurately.
The photo got national attention overnight as a parody account with the handle @GoBaraboo on Twitter plucked it from Gust’s website, where it’s been posted since May, and posted it with the caption “We even got the black kid to throw it up. #BarabooProud.”
Twitter user @CarleySidey retweeted the @GoBaraboo tweet, which was then retweeted by Young Turks journalist Jules Suzdaltsev and has since gone viral. The original tweet has been deleted and the @GoBaraboo account set to “private.” Suzdaltsev was also the first journalist to make contact with Jordan Blue.
Baraboo Schools Superintendent Mueller tweeted Monday morning, “The photo of students posted to
#BarabooProud is not reflective of the educational values and beliefs of the School District of Baraboo. The District will pursue any and all available and appropriate actions, including legal, to address.”
She reiterated that pledge in an email to Madison365.
“The District is investigating at this time to determine who is all in the photo,” she wrote. “The photo is not endorsed by nor reflective of the educational values and beliefs of the School District of Baraboo. The District will pursue any and all available and appropriate actions, including legal, to address.”
Gust, a former social studies teacher, said it’s frustrating that people are “so quick to grab the negative.”
“I understand with all of the Trumpian tweets and all the other stuff that’s going on, the world is pretty well lit up and you get something like that on social media, and somebody says, well, they’re training in the high school kids to be Nazis in Baraboo is absolutely reprehensible,” he said.