Magazine article Nieman Reports

A Tragedy Illuminates the Ethical Dimensions of Picture Taking

Magazine article Nieman Reports

A Tragedy Illuminates the Ethical Dimensions of Picture Taking

Article excerpt

Reliving August 29, 2005, or the days afterward, is not easy for me or many other people who were in New Orleans during that dark time. To stay behind while more than 80 percent of the city evacuated before Hurricane Katrina, whether as a resident, a police officer or, like me, a photojournalist, was to be forever changed, even scarred, by the horror of what was experienced and by the stories you keep buried inside.

I'm not a neophyte when it comes to covering disaster and horror. I've lost count of the hurricanes I've covered. I've experienced earthquake carnage and the senselessness of war. Despite my experience, Katrina crept past the emotional protection my camera lenses have faithfully provided.

I've struggled to explain the difference to fellow journalists. It's similar, I'd think, to responding to an auto fatality across town only to discover my son slumped behind the wheel. Katrina altered my perspective, making it impossible to remain a distant observer. I had a strongly felt need to connect with and somehow help those I was photographing.

As a photojournalist I'm accustomed to being a first responder. But as people clung to life amid the swirling floodwaters, I found myself a sole responder.

Going Into the Flood

When Katrina blew through New Orleans that Monday morning, I was huddled with the storm team at The Times-Picayune office, watching through the windows as the wind wreaked havoc with the trees outside.

The weather was nasty, but I was getting antsy. I needed to get out and start taking pictures. I knew from experience that to photograph a hurricane properly, you have to "see the wind" in the photos, and you can't do that once the wind has stopped.


Driving my trusty old Toyota Tacoma four-wheel-drive truck, I carefully picked my way through high water, downed power lines, and trees to the French Quarter. It was more of a reconnaissance mission to check on the city's beloved landmarks. I photographed St. Louis Cathedral as a man aimlessly walked past, praying in the blinding rain. Portions of the Superdome roof had peeled away. Since cell phones weren't working, I returned to the office to report my findings and drop off my photos.

My editors heard that the Lower Ninth Ward, the low ground surrounded by the Industrial Canal, the Mississippi River, and the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, was flooding and asked if I could get there. I wasn't sure, but I was more than willing to try. Picking my way through the four-mile stretch, I rolled over all manner of debris, even the bricks of a collapsed building in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. Surprisingly, I was able to drive within a couple of blocks of the St. Claude Bridge over the Industrial Canal, then waded through thigh-deep water and crossed over the canal into the Lower Ninth Ward.

I expected to see high water, but the scene stretching out beyond the bridge where I was standing caught me by surprise. Floodwater was up to houses' eaves as far as I could see. Immediately to my right was a family of women clinging to the columns of their porch, chest deep in swirling floodwater. They were desperately waiting for help, and an elderly man on the bridge with me was frantically looking for a way to help. We considered wading across the street that separated us, or even swimming to them, but when we gauged the water depth, we knew it was way too deep and moving too fast to cross.

Above the howling winds I asked the family how long they had been trapped there. They said, "Since 8 a.m." It was now 1 p.m. That's when I realized they were not standing on their porch but were precariously balanced on the porch's railing. I asked if they could get into their attic. They said they had tried unsuccessfully and now it was too late. I noticed the top of the front door was just inches above the water. I encouraged them to hang on. Surely help would arrive fairly quickly. …

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