The Hart Park drowning photo

hart parkThe afternoon of July 28, 1985 would change my career. I was 27. I have told the story about this photo so many times, in interviews, at conferences, at gatherings with friends and colleagues and at dozens of high school and college journalism programs, that I really don’t think I need to rehash it here. Rather, I’d like to share with you a story about one of the great honors I would receive and how the voice I was given in my profession has helped me make sense of this terrible tragedy in which the Romero family lost a son and brother. I never should have become the story, but that’s unfortunately what happened. First, however, I should clear up the misconceptions that have accompanied this photo for the past 29 years. One is that Edward Romero drowned in the Kern River. Not true. Edward drowned in Hart Park Lake. The river runs through the park, but this happened in the lake. Next is that the woman is Edward’s mother. She is his aunt. The story that I was ordered by the officer in charge, then Lt. Carl Sparks (he’s on the left of the photo), not to take the photo and that I ignored him is true. The final one is that the family was upset about the photo being published. Eloy Romero, the boy’s father, told The Californian that he had seen the photo, but was so grief stricken by the death of his son he couldn’t care about a picture. Now, my story:

In 2008, I received what I consider the greatest honor of my career. No, it wasn’t an award. I’m not big on awards, though I gladly accepted them if they came my way. It was an invitation to speak at a conference on media ethics at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. I was invited by renowned ethicists Deni Elliott, who holds the Poynter Jamison Chair in Media Ethics and Press Policy at the University of South Florida, and Paul Martin Lester, professor of journalism at Cal State Fullerton and the author of numerous books on photojournalism and photojournalism ethics. In 1985, I shot a picture at the scene of a drowning in Hart Park in Bakersfield. The picture became one of the most controversial of the decade, and at age 27 and just four years into my career, I was thrust into the national media spotlight. Somehow, some way, the picture and the fallout resulted in the media industry turning me into an authority on media ethics. Of course, I wasn’t, I was a newspaper staff photographer wearing a Bruce Springsteen “Born in the USA Tour” t-shirt and a Los Angeles Raiders cap working a Sunday afternoon who took a picture, just like thousands of others would have. But the calls and invitations and interview requests kept on coming, still do. For two weeks, I came to work and did media interviews and pretty much nothing else. So I took my new role seriously. When I wonder what good could come from such a tragic image, the answer is that it gave me a voice in a profession I care deeply about. And the thing that scares me and troubles me the most about that profession is the ease with which some will sacrifice the ethics we old timers still hold dearly. If I have a voice, and people are interested in what I have to say, I’m going to use it and be pretty damn serious about it, too. Talking to journalism students is my truest joy, whether it’s in my own classes at Bakersfield College or at universities and conferences.
What made this one different was that it was the University of South Florida. The home of media ethics studies, closely aligned with the prestigious Poynter Institute, also in St. Petersburg. I was one of three photographers invited to speak at the conference. The others were the legendary Jay Maisel, considered in some photo circles as the greatest color photographer in the world; and John Filo, who in my opinion, shot the greatest news photo ever taken on American soil, the tragic Kent State massacre photo. My brain still is not able to grasp how I got invited to speak with those two guys. What the hell was I doing there? I don’t know, but damn, was I thrilled. So thrilled and excited, if fact, that I took my mom to Florida with me. I wanted her to be part of this. I did, however, get a lecture from her about using profanity in my talk. I’m not the type of guy who uses profanity, especially around students, and asked mom what I said. Apparently I said “shit” and “damn” at least one time. I explained to mom that those really aren’t curse words anymore, but mom’s old school, and a curse word is a curse word. The Californian thought the invitation was pretty cool, too, especially my executive editor Mike Jenner, and they even paid my salary so I did not have to use vacation days!
When I was a journalism student at Cal State Northridge, I remembered the excitement of having professional journalists come to talk to us. I remember hanging on their every word, taking in every story, every experience. As these students spoke to me, took my picture, interviewed me for their projects and student newspaper, I wondered, “Do they have any idea how excited I am right now?” I was trying to come across as the cool and polished professional, the guy who’d been doing this for 27 years, but inside I was that Cal State Northridge kid, more excited, I think, than they were.
John and I presented separately, talking about our picture, how it changed us, how it impacted our careers. I think the treat for the students and conference attendees was they got to see our outtakes, the entire shoots, not just the picture the world would see. I know I was fascinated by John’s Kent State take. Dr. Lester, the Cal State Fullerton professor, was struck by the similarities of how John and I approached and shot our assignments. We were two photographers who didn’t know the other, who shot our pictures 14 years apart, yet our takes were strikingly similar. Lester asked John and I to author a study for his Visual Communication Quarterly, a publication that studies and explores these things. While John and I are credited as the authors, Paul is the one who put it together. This is the piece, and as it shows, it is eerie in how our pictures and our approach were so similar. Here is the project:quarterly_1 Quarterly_2 Quarterly_3 Quarterly_4 Quarterly_5 Quarterly_6Here is the original Associated Press photo transmission – long discolored and faded – of the Hart Park drowning photo. This is what came out of a machine and landed on the desk of every newspaper in the United States and the world that subscribed to the AP. The back story is I had a long argument with an assistant managing editor over moving this photo. He did not want it moved. He eventually gave up, threw up his hands and said (I swear), “Go ahead and move it (to the Associated Press), but I’m telling you, nobody is going to be interested in this photo.” drowntransmissionThe aftermath of the picture’s publication would also contribute mightily to my career-long disdain of newspaper publishers and executives, thanks to what happened the following spring at the California-Nevada Associated Press News Executives annual convention in Orange County, California. I was invited to speak at the conference, and the picture was a nominee for best news photo and the Associated Press Mark Twain Award for photo of the year. The talk did not go well. The controversy over the photo’s publication clearly split opinion in the industry, with most editors siding with my editor, Bob Bentley, that it was a mistake to have run the photo, and most photographers believing the photo should have been published. The debate reached a fever pitch months earlier when Bob Greene, a Chicago Tribune  columnist, called the photo “pornography” and made some comment like “it would be too much to ask a photographer to think.” (Slight paraphrase, or maybe an exact quote, I don’t remember, I’m not going to waste time looking up his drivel.) That column lit up the photojournalism industry. During my talk, the editors pressed me to admit that it was wrong to publish the photo. I refused, and it got contentious to say the least. That night, the photo would win the best news photo award. The awards were a big deal. Big enough that the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court was the guest speaker. Then it happened. It won the Mark Twain Award for Associated Press Photo of the Year. And as I walked up to receive it, the audience of editors and publishers booed. And booed loudly. Right to my face and right in front of the chief justice. The award also included a prize of $1,000. As I walked back to my table, one of the executives shouted “give the money back!” I’ll admit it shook me up. I was young and really hoped that someday I might move on and work for one of these people. That changed everything. I had been taught in j-school to respect publishers and editors. My vision of these folks was Lou Grant, Charley Hume and Mrs. Pinchon. Katherine Graham, Otis Chandler and Ben Bradlee. I was beginning to realize that they were the exceptions, that a whole hell of a lot of people guiding this business were losers. And my attitude toward them changed. From now on, as far as I was concerned, they did not get my automatic respect. They had to earn it, not vice versa. Interestingly, my editor Bob Bentley, was very upset with his colleagues at the conference and let me know he did not appreciate what happened. As for me, my career would progress just fine, but oh, baby, what I would give to face off with that room full of assholes today!

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20 thoughts on “The Hart Park drowning photo

  1. This is fascinating, John. What a powerful and disturbing photo. I had never seen it. I’m a reporter at the Mpls Star Tribune, and your photo reminded me of one that’s in our lobby — it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for William Seaman. Here’s a link:

    http://bytesdaily.blogspot.com/2013/05/pulitzer-and-world-press-photos-of-year.html

    Yours is more raw, and shows the face of the small victim. But in their evocation of immeasurable loss, they strike me as similar.

  2. What journalistic value was added to readers by showing a family in grieve over the body of their dead child? What family would want that final image and their reaction to the tragedy splashed on news pages? Who gains (gained) by seeing this?

    We as an industry don’t publish these harsh images of personal tragedies for a reason. But it was published and that cannot be undone.

    You were young and unaware and it was a good object lesson of what not to do in a personal tragedy. I suspect that was the message the editors and publishers were trying to impart upon you, but less elegantly and you were probably a bit naive and wanted to defend your work. Point made. But nearly 30 years later, it remains a bad call by editors and page designers to publish it that day.

    Kent State was something else entirely.

  3. Wonderful reading this and feel my anger rise when reading what you were subjected to by the crowd of editors and publishers. After 25+ years in newspapers and 10 of them at the fresno bee I whole-heartedly agree with your assessment of newsroom executives and publishers. Looking back since leaving newspapers in 2009, the only ones that remain are not visionary. They are merely the most adaptive of those rats who will without shame repeat whatever command from above will keep them above the waterline of their sinking ship. Few exceptions for those who were still able retain some sort of respect for their coworkers and the craft.

    I truly believe that if the bee were to shutter its self tomorrow, in three months there wouldn’t be a gaping whole in this community. And that’s a damn shame.

    1. Couldn’t agree more Bill, though I still think a community is better served by a newspaper, assuming that newspaper strives to serve their community. From what I hear, McClatchy has really gone downhill and sold out and now stands with the likes Singleton and Gannett among media companies you don’t want anything to do with.

  4. Interesting post. I’d never seen the photo before either. I’m surprised you didn’t talk about the victims or relatives – if they had asked you not to print it would you still do it? I feel that they are the ones that we should think about, not the reader / editor / publisher etc. If one of them was very vociferous about not publishing it, or motioning for you to go away / covering their face, would you still run it?

    As a former pro photographer myself (turned graphic designer), I’m kind of split down the middle. Certainly if a victim relative was motioning for me to go away I’d not run photos. Especially with minors / kids. However, I feel in years later they may actually appreciate the fact a photo like this was shared. Hard to say.

    1. Great points Jacob. The family never objected to my presence, but there was so much confusion when the scene unfounded. I’ve been hearing from some of my photo subjects since I started this project who have said that though the pictures are hard to look at, they’re glad they are here now. I’ve even sent them copies.

  5. This story and photo came up on my Facebook feed because it was shared by a former colleague. I can’t comment on the discussion happening there, but was struck by the words of an editor who kept asking for the significance and meaning of the picture in the larger scope of things. For example:

    “Did running the photo help change anything? Did it lead any municipality to post a lifeguard at the lake, or did the paper follow up on it? No? Then it’s just trading a moment of despair for a great photo. Horrific photos have their place: the Kent State shootings, Vietnam, the Highway of Death, 9/11. Hell, even “Blood on the Asphault” was educational. But there’s no payoff here. Context matters. Proportion matters.”

    Having worked as a photo editor for about 20 years, I was always confused by this line of thinking. A reporter was assigned. A story was written. The story was published. No one seems to question the need for the story. Few word editors would say that recounting the event was “just trading a moment of despair for a great STORY.” Most wouldn’t even require some payoff or greater context. News is what happens. News stories are regularly about traffic accidents, work mishaps, murders, battles, any other form of death. That something happened and someone died seems to be all the context required for a story. That death resulted is the key.

    But for an image, the requirement in the minds of many seems to be that there has to be something more. And I just don’t get it.

    A good picture is a story. It may hit harder in some ways than a bunch of words. The impact is immediate. It slips past some mental defenses. It does not require an act of imagination for a visual to be rendered by the brain. But both the words and the picture tell the same story, albeit in different ways.

    Yet a stark photo almost always evokes more fear, more anger, more insistence for censorship. We must open ears, but not eyes, it seems, or we are simply being exploitative. The irony, as you have noted, is that often after the fact, the subjects appreciate the record. And even the most horrifying photos — such as that of 9/11’s falling man — provide a record that simply can’t be equaled with mere words, a story that can be explored in different ways as decades pass. And who would know that image even existed, how would it be recalled or re-explored, if someone didn’t have the balls to publish it in the first place?

    I’ve fought these battles myself. I’ve heard all the excuses about reader sensibilities and family publications and avoiding the if-it-bleeds-then-it-leads mentality. I don’t buy it. Giving readers fluff and froth and Kim Kardashian’s ass — because that’s what they want — isn’t saving newspapers. It isn’t likely that visual honesty will turn finances around either. But if we’re going to sacrifice ethics to prostitute publications to the base desires of subscribers — because that just makes business sense — then maybe we should occasionally serve them up something less entertaining just because it’s truth. If nothing else, you’d think that would help those with a conscience sleep better at night.

    1. Oh my gosh, David Hawkins. Thank you for this response! I will be saving this and sharing it for a very long time. I’ve said the same thing so many times, but never as eloquently as what you have written here.

  6. Thank you, John Harte for sharing your story. I had not remembered your photo until a link to this page was sent to me. It brings back a lot to see it again. It tells the story in a way that few photos ever do, so it was and is news.

    As to the editors who ask how the photo changed anything, who can know at the time? It is only in retrospect that we may know. Even then there are so many undercurrents that the story’s ramifications can never be truly understood. Did the photo save a subsequent life? It may very have done so. The kind of impact such an image can offer may have caused another parent to watch a child more closely. Did some child have to take swimming lessons because of it, which in turn saved another life? Possibly. We’ll never know, and anyone who says such a photo changes nothing is a fool.

    As to whether it should have been published in the first place, yes it should. Shock and horror are part of life. It is not demeaning to the family. The sad event happened. It’s too easy to cry sensationalism from the sidelines. It’s too easy to judge what is too shocking for the public from some Olympian position. You were there. You had a call to make, one I thank God I never had to face. You had the courage to show the raw truth that is too often sugar coated or sensationalized. Thank you.

  7. John- Thank you for sharing this story, as well as your post on “the other photo.” Your photograph was the topic of a discussion in a visual communications course I took this semester, and I have shared your blog with the class. The students are a mix of journalists and non-journalists, word people and visual people, and it was interesting to hear the very strong opinions on both sides of publishing this photograph. I’ve always been of the opinion that newspapers exist to expose the truth to their readers, not shield them from it. While the situation you documented was a horrible tragedy, I think you all made the right decisions to shoot and publish the photo.

  8. Thanks for the story John. I have been on the scene of tragic accidents. One scene I remember was an accident I arrived first on the scene. Two guys were laying in the street. Their motorcycle was under the front end of a car. I refrained from taking advantage of their misery for my benefit by photographing them. I should be helping them instead. But I didn’t know how. It was eerie. Off in the distance I could here the sound of a siren. How I wished they would hurry. Fortunately an off-duty fireman came running out of a house down the street with a first-aid kit in hand. He attended to them. I later began taking pictures. I wished I had taken pictures sooner. Tragedies are reminders t people of the need to be careful, respect life, appreciate life.

    Your photo of the family mourning over the drowning victim is a reminder. It’s a stop and think depiction of how fragile life can be. We need to stop and think it. The Bible says: (Ecclesiastes 7:2)  ”Better is it to go to the house of mourning than to go to the banquet house, because that is the end of all mankind; and the one alive should take [it] to his heart.” The photo should cause others to stop and think of how precious life is and are we really appreciating our family or are we taking them for granted. Things can change in our life in a heartbeat. I believe a photo like yours can do great good and impact people. Should it have been published? Absolutely.

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