The 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: Here 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.” The 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!