Documenting Death and Disaster
Photojournalist sets ethical boundaries

HOLLY HILDRETH with BONNIE STEWART

While the country watched the radar image of Katrina creep toward the Big Easy, Eric Gay, an Associated Press photojournalist packed his suitcase and camera.

“When you cover a hurricane, if you go before it, you are part of the story,” he said. If you show up after the storm, “you are going to cover the recovery, but I was there with the reporter...You feel the wind.”

Gay and a fellow reporter left their hotel to cover one of the worst natural disasters in American history. They found the newly homeless stranded on a bridge and the dead, left where they had taken their last breath. Remaining detached while covering such horrors can create ethical grey areas.

Gay gave away bottled water, which some journalists may consider crossing the ethical line between being a journalist and being a participant.

“That didn’t compromise the story,” Gay said. “I’d give anybody a bottle of water.”

Gay said he approached people with respect, asking sources if they wanted to talk or be photographed.

“There were hundreds and thousands of stories,” he said. “Everybody has a story to tell. We tried to pick from a few of the people involved and try to tell their overall story.”

Some could not speak for themselves.

Gay photographed Booker Harris, a 91-year-old man who had died in a Ryder panel truck and was left lying on a lawn chair outside the Louisiana Convention Center in New Orleans.

In order to give editors a choice, Gay then draped Harris with a yellow quilt and took another photo. Both images ran in newspapers across the country.

“Some of the photos were gruesome,” he said. “But the story had to be told.

“In New Orleans, no one knew what was going on . . . We know we’re pushing the edge of the envelope with a lot of photos, but we offer alternatives for newspapers who want something less graphic,” he said.

Note: Gay, who is based in AP’s San Antonio bureau was a nominated finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Photography for his “multifaceted coverage of the human suffering in New Orleans” following Katrina.