Alex Thomas and Scott Jones remember being knocked down by the riot officers’ shields, falling to the pavement on Seymour Street in Vancouver. It was June 2011, moments after the Canucks lost Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final on home ice to the Boston Bruins. The city was on fire.
Thomas remembers shaking with fear, as officers kicked them while they were on the ground in an effort to clear the street, until the police left to rejoin their formation as it moved to the next block.
Jones remembers looking down at Thomas, seeing that his girlfriend was “pretty hysterical” as they lay in the street, and knowing that he had to calm her down any way he could.
So he kissed her.
Photojournalist Richard Lam remembers seeing Thomas and Jones, and being drawn to the oddity of the image: The emptiness of what was usually a busy street, save for the couple in an embrace and the police officers in riot gear walking away from them. The tenderness of the moment, of love enduring in the midst of chaos.
None of the three will ever forget what happened next. The photo of Jones kissing Thomas going viral on a global scale, becoming the quintessential image from the Vancouver riot of June 15, 2011. The media frenzy to find out the identity of the couple. The accusations that the photo was staged. The appalling stories about Thomas and Jones that proliferated online, until they had to appear on international television to tell the real story.
They remember the fleeting fame, and infamy. Thomas and Jones remember it together 10 years later, having made a happy life in Perth, Australia, with an adorable 3-year-old daughter named Amy.
That’s right: The Vancouver Riot Kissing Couple is still very much a couple.
“We’ve put in a lot of work building our lives together since then. It’s just a piece of the backstory,” said Thomas. “We didn’t know what ‘going viral’ meant or anything like that. It was a bit weird having people interested in it.”
In hindsight, the 2011 Stanley Cup Final series between the Bruins and Canucks could only have ended with a city destroying itself. It was seven games of pure chaotic energy, between two teams that had instant and significant animosity.
In Game 1, Alexandre Burrows of Vancouver bit the finger of Boston center Patrice Bergeron, which led to Boston forward Milan Lucic offering his bare hand as a snack to Burrows in Game 3. Also in Game 3, Boston’s Nathan Horton was taken out on a stretcher after a hit by Vancouver defenseman Aaron Rome, who was suspended for the rest of the Final. Boston would win that game and Game 4 to even the series. After Game 5, Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo criticized Boston netminder Tim Thomas‘ playing style and complained that Thomas hadn’t flattered him enough through the media. Thomas and the Bruins won Game 6 at home to force Game 7 in Vancouver, where the exhausting, physical series ended with a 4-0 shutout in favor of the B’s.
Scott Jones and Alex Thomas watched the game at a friend’s house in downtown Vancouver. Thomas is a Vancouver native. Jones was born in Australia, where the couple planned to move weeks after the series finished. He had been living and working in Vancouver for six months.
As Game 7 wound down, they started hearing reports that vandalism and looting had started in the city. This was déjà vu for Vancouver: The last time the Canucks lost in the Stanley Cup Final — in 1994, on the road against the New York Rangers — there was over $1.1 million (Canadian) in damage done to downtown businesses through destruction of property and theft.
“Even before the game was finished, there was news coming out that cars were on fire and that sort of s—. Me being a bit of a tourist, I thought it would be a good idea to go check it out. Like, ‘We’re never going to see this again,'” said Jones.
They didn’t realize how quickly the chaos would escalate.
“The police closed off the whole area and started to clearing streets with tear gas and charging at people. And that’s how we ended up on the ground, when they cleared one of the streets that we were in,” said Jones. “The line of police sorta knocked us over, and then there are two [officers] with shields and kicking us, trying to get us to move. Then they realized they were getting left behind so they move on. So that just leaves us in the middle of the street.”
Thomas said she got caught because she wasn’t running fast enough. She hit the ground hard. There was blood on her clothes, but she said she wasn’t significantly hurt.
“Just scratches that came from the middle of the street. Scraped knees. Bruises that were more emotional [than anything]. Physical trauma to be caught up in that,” she said. “I wasn’t really expecting riot police and so many things to be out. Scott convinced me to go out there and I guess I didn’t realize how serious it would be taken, with the riot act being called and what that entailed. It was something I had never experienced before.”
Thomas was shaking, both in fear and from the adrenaline rush of the moment. Jones kissed her to calm her down. She clasped his neck with her hand, their legs intertwined. The riot police were walking away toward street lights covered in a haze of smoke.
Rich Lam saw it all through his camera lens.
Lam is a freelance photojournalist. He was covering Game 7 for Getty Images. After the postgame news conferences, he rushed outside to chronicle the madness in the streets. A passerby said that the Hudson’s Bay department store in downtown Vancouver — as iconic as the Macy’s at Herald Square in New York City — was on fire, so he made his way over there.
The police were lined up preparing to move the crowd.
“It was like the running of the bulls — you’ve just got to run,” said Lam. “And it’s been a long day. I was trying to not be a hero. After all, this was a hockey riot. So I ran right. After the second charge, I ended up on Seymour Street, where this couple ended up. It’s traditionally a really busy street. Looking back, it was kind of weird, just seeing two people on the ground and no one around. So it made an interesting frame.”
He began taking some photos as Jones comforted Thomas. Lam then decided to do something that made his photo iconic: He put the couple in focus in the middle of the frame while having a police officer in riot gear holding a baton in the foreground, just out of focus.
“In this town, anything like this happens and the next day the story would always be about police brutality. So that’s when I kind of stepped in and put the cop into the photo,” said Lam. “Here’s one person comforting another person that got injured. And here’s a cop. You make the association. That was my initial theory on the picture.”
Once the police moved on, there was an eerie calm around Thomas and Jones. “There wasn’t this sense of urgency. Like, where do you go?” recalled Thomas. “There was this weird void of space. I didn’t have my bearings. And everything was shut. It’s not like there was a shop or a restaurant that you could go into. What are we going to do? So we just sat there for quite a while.”
They eventually got up and searched for a SkyTrain station, finding each one they came across had been closed. By the time they located an open one, they had walked halfway home.
Lam returned to the arena around midnight and looked through his photos. There were three frames where he captured Jones and Thomas kissing.
“To tell you the truth? When I saw it, I was like, ‘That’s pretty neat,’ but it had been 12 hours since I had a meal and I was more concerned about what was for dinner,” said Lam. “It wasn’t until I was leaving that another photographer mentioned that it was a really cool picture.”
Lam didn’t realize he had something special in the photo until the following morning, when a phone call woke him up at 7 a.m. The image had gone viral.
Like, super viral.
Like, globally viral.
“I was just like, holy crap,” he said.
As the city began cleaning up the estimated $5 million (Canadian) in damage from the riot, Jones woke up to a text message from a friend that had been at the Game 7 party they attended. She asked whether it was Jones and Thomas in the photo.
“What photo?” he recalled thinking.
At first, he thought she was asking about a photo taken at the party. But she tagged him on Facebook with an image of the couple kissing in the street the night before.
“I was like, ‘Alex, check this out.’ At that point nobody was really talking about it. It was just another picture from the riots, right?” said Jones.
The first call from a news station arrived a few hours later. Then another. And another. Jones soon turned off his phone.
According to Lam, the head of Getty Images had called him to authenticate the photo, to ensure that it hadn’t been staged. He sent them every single frame he took of the couple, and Getty released a series of photos beyond the one it published the night of Game 7.
“I think that’s how [Jones] got identified. There was picture of him, you know, looking up after [kissing her]. That’s how his sister in Australia saw it and called somebody and said, ‘That’s my brother in the picture,'” Lam recalled.
While they were sleeping, the photo became big news back home. Jones said his sister had given his phone number to a media outlet in Australia. “Somehow, everyone had my number now,” he said.
Suddenly, the couple were a media obsession. Esquire called the photo “Love in the Time of Rioting.” The Sun (U.K.) had a headline that read, “Couple Make Love at Hockey Riot.” A Twitter account was dedicated to Photoshop memes of the couple kissing amid other disasters, like the crash of the Hindenburg. People wanted to know who they were. Why they were kissing. How they ended up in the street. It felt like everyone in Vancouver was trying to locate them.
“I don’t think either of us were very media-savvy prior to that,” said Thomas.
“It was all a bit overwhelming. We didn’t know how to handle it,” said Jones.
“Yeah, like, what happens when you’re in a viral photo? Does the news media eventually just go away and let you get back to your life, or do they keep calling you and showing up outside your door?” continued Thomas.
They needed some guidance. So Thomas’ father reached out to someone he figured might be able to offer advice on navigating the media: Rich Lam.
The photographer and the couple met at a coffee shop outside the city.
“I got to tell you, it’s so surreal,” Lam said. “Being in the news business, you’re shooting protests and marches, and it’s all strangers. It’s all passing. You shoot it, you file it and then you never see these people again in your life. It was really nice to talk to them. They’re really nice. They’re really sweet.”
Lam recalled them seeming overwhelmed by the attention. “I told them this isn’t a bad story, you know, they haven’t done anything wrong. I could just hear in their voice that there was a little bit of fear and hesitation because everyone was looking for them. The CBC building was staked out. The Vancouver Sun building was staked out. Everyone in the city was looking for them,” he said. “I was being as normal and human to them as I could, and helped them out. ‘All right. Here are your options.'”
His advice: Do a couple of national TV interviews, one in Canada and one in Australia, and then be done with it.
“He said it’s best to give the dog a bone. Or else they’ll keep hounding you, basically,” said Thomas.
The Australian one came about in a peculiar way: Lam was booked on a show and had to bail an hour before airtime due to a conflict. The producers were upset. He told them he had a replacement lined up — the couple themselves.
They did a sit-down interview with CBC News in Canada and added a third media appearance: “The TODAY Show” in the U.S.
“We didn’t do a lot of press. It was a couple of days before we were leaving to go on a trip through California, and then move to Melbourne. We wanted to get our side of the story out there,” said Jones.
They felt that was important. It was their story after all, and they wanted to take ownership of it. Because when you’re a viral sensation, so many others are inventing their own sordid tales about you, as Jones and Thomas would unfortunately discover.
Jones remembered walking out of the TV interviews and feeling like everyone recognized them. “It felt weird being out in public,” he said.
Some certainly did, like when the couple made their trek to California. “A lady at the baggage claim at the airport recognized us. Another guy came up to us in a bar in San Diego, saying, ‘It’s you, from the picture.’ You don’t know how many people recognized us, but those are the ones who came up to say something,” said Jones.
Then there were those people whom Jones and Thomas never met, nor would want to meet. The speculative media. The online trolls and gossips. Like the ones who tried to actively discredit the authenticity of the image.
“Even to this day, people still think the photo is fake. Every now and then it’ll pop up and you’ll see people’s comments like, ‘oh, this is staged,’ or ‘this is Photoshopped’ or all sorts of s—,” said Jones.
Lam dealt with those accusations too, and took them to heart. “That kind of hurt, personally, that people are saying that it’s fake. I know there are going to be trolls everywhere, but to question my integrity of covering news and all that … I had to stop reading it,” he said. “People were like, ‘Oh, they planned this.’ And I’m like, ‘Who plans this during a riot?'”
Alex Thomas and Scott Jones, more famously known as the Vancouver Game 7 riot “kissing couple,” discuss how people still mistakenly believe their kissing photo was staged 10 years ago.
Luckily for Lam, he had a way to prove that the photo was in no way staged, despite it being slightly before the proliferation of social media video in moments like this. Laura Trillitzsch, a photographer, had recorded Seymour Street on her phone as the police marched through, knocking the couple to the ground and kicking them in order to get them to move on.
For Jones and Thomas, the accusations of having staged the photos were secondary to the other things they were reading online about themselves.
“The media was making up stories about what was happening to us as well,” Jones said. “That she had been stabbed. That I wasn’t her boyfriend. That she was raped later. All sorts of things.”
A writer for The Post Game, for example, tweeted that the kiss “looks like it could be something sinister. How do we know that girl is alert and willing?”
“Just horrible things that weren’t the truth at all,” said Thomas. “Disheartening to read, and uncomfortable. People will just invent a story if they don’t have a backstory for what happened.”
But the intensity of viral stardom is a quick burn. Thomas estimates it lasted three weeks.
“For me, it was frightening and I almost got hurt,” she said. “I felt pretty removed from it. It’s an interesting thing that happened.”
Jones and Thomas now live in Perth with their daughter. They opened up a craft beer bar called Beerpourium that showcases Aussie beer. It opened six months before the COVID-19 pandemic, but Jones said it’s doing well.
They have two copies of the photo, signed by Lam and displayed prominently. One is in their house. The other is at the bar.
“A lot of people have seen the photo, and they don’t know it’s me,” said Jones. “A lot of my staff thinks it’s funny. There’s an interview of me from 10 years ago, so I look really young. Most people think it’s a cool thing.”
Thomas, who is also a senior project engineer at Water Corporation, gets a reaction when people find out about their viral image history.
“It’s a little weird for me because it’s not a work-appropriate photo,” she said. “Everyone once in a while someone will mention it. It’s office banter. ‘Hey, did you know she’s the one?’ They’ll bring it up in the lunchroom.”
The photo has also popped up a few times in the last decade in pop culture. The image was used as cover art for alt-rock band Placebo’s 20-year retrospective album “A Place for Us to Dream” in 2016, and the group sent the couple a signed copy. It was featured in the credits sequence of “Modern Love” on Amazon Prime as well. Lam said Getty is in charge of licensing the image.
For the couple, it’s a moment of their lives frozen in time, and a moment for Thomas’ hometown that she still has trouble comprehending.
“That’s where I grew up. I had no idea that something of that magnitude and severity, of people having that crowd mentality, with the looting, [could happen]. I mean, it wasn’t violence against other people so much, but violence against the whole city, with that crowd mob mentality. It’s nothing I’ve ever come across living in Vancouver, that’s for sure,” she said.
“After speaking with people who lived in Vancouver, it was a bit of a tragic event for the city,” said Jones.
Lam had three colleagues assaulted that night, and initially had someone with him after Game 7 to watch his back as he chronicled the mayhem. “It was his first riot, and I told him, ‘I think you better go home,'” he said.
Ten years later, Lam feels fortunate to have captured the image, despite the inherent danger.
“Personally and professionally, I was quite happy with that picture. I was the only one that got it and I had colleagues around me. In a crowded event, it was unique that no one else had that picture,” he said.
“In this day and age where everyone has cameras, during an event like that, you rarely have something that unique. I have riot pictures that look like other riot pictures. It all ends up kind of looking the same. I’m truly lucky and honored to have [captured] something like this.”