Tragedy by the Sea

On the morning of April 2, 1954, Los Angeles Times photographer John Gaunt was lounging in the front yard of his beachfront home in Hermosa Beach when he heard a neighbor shout, “Something’s happening on the beach!” Gaunt grabbed his Rolliflex camera and ran toward the shoreline.

When he arrived, he saw a young couple standing near the water clutching each other. Their 19-month-old son who had been playing in their yard had wandered down to the beach and into the surf. He was swept away by the fierce tide and drowned. Gaunt took four quick photos of the grieving couple.

One of them appeared on the front page of The Times the next morning and won him a Pulitzer and an AP Award. Critical acclaim and harsh criticism surrounded Gaunt immediately. The Pulitzer committee called the photograph, titled “Tragedy by the Sea,” “poignant and profoundly moving.” However, many wondered whether it was ethical to take these photos. Although Gaunt did not know the couple personally, he knew people who did, and Gaunt himself had a 3-year-old daughter at home at that time.

29 thoughts on “Tragedy by the Sea

  1. This photo is unethical . This poor couple were not public figures , they did not consent , and most importantly this is one of those awful , private moments we all have in life , that ought to be respected with privacy . Would you want your photo taken in a similar circumstance ?

    • How many photos throughout history have been taken in moments that some may consider unethical or inappropriate? In the realm of media and communication, nothing is taboo, and everything has a purpose. To say that someone isn’t allowed to take photos of a situation is naive and obnoxious.

      • I find that logic , that nothing is taboo , is frightening . Would you take images of infant sacrifice , complete with the ritualistic eating of the body ? Why should child porn be illegal ? I mean 4 year olds having sex with 50 year old adults is media and communication ? Isn’t it ? And finally , why don’t we have footage of those fun shower scenes Auschwitz ? Come on , it’s media ! What a foolish position to assume .

        If that was your child who just died , I’m sure you would want that documented for history . Right ? ( don’t even bother if you are not a parent . )

    • They were in a public place, so no privacy is given by law. It would be up to your morality, whether or not you should take a picture, and that varies from person to person.

      • Esp. when a Pulitzer is possibly in the balance . John Gaunt’s opportunism and career vaulted by infant death and parents at their most extended , most vulnerable moments is sickening . If this was in context of a war , civil unrest or murder it would be a different call . I have no problem taking the photo ( what if it was murder ) , it’s is the publishing of this photo that is unethical .

    • Wow micah… from zero to cannibalism in a single sentence. Couldn’t you fit Hitler in there someplace?

      I love people and respect life and the suffering of parents in a moment of tragedy. That said, I’m witnessing their moment of loss now, 56 years after the fact, and I find myself moved to tears at there loss. Right or wrong I’d say this piece transcends the normal boundary’s and has become a moving piece of art. At least to me. I would think that anyone that ever suffered great loss will have an appreciation for this image, and for those to young to understand what that means yet, it provides a glimpse into a moment of ultimate pathos. I’m guessing that’s what caught the attention’s of the Pulitzer committee as well.

    • People probably will argue about the ethics, but I believe it was unconscionable. This photo, which shows my aunt and uncle just after my cousin drowned, has haunted them and all of our family since that day. It shows up constantly in unexpected places, causing renewed grief. It probably made Mr. Gaunt’s career. Talk about detachment from normal human feelings.

      • Hi Donna, can you tell me what happened in the aftermath of this terrible day. Did they recover from their loss to have other children? That’s the one thing the picture does for me. Looking at two people in a moment of inconsolable loss, your left wondering if they recovered. I have friends that grew up on the beach north of there in Sunset and this picture made me think of them as children. Did you aunt and uncle remain there living beside the sea? Did they have more children? I’m thinking about a young couple’s lowest possible moment and wondering if they recovered? I lost a loved one just last year and these sorts of things remain with me now in a way they never did before.

  2. Life is full of both sublime bliss and horrific tragedies. To demand someone is allowed to capture one moment and not the other is itself unethical.

  3. There’s no expectation of privacy on a public beach so concent isn’t needed. The photographer has a first ammendment right to take this picture. As for me being in the same situation and if I would want my picture taken… that would be the last thing on my mind.

  4. The most unethical thing that happened here is the parents leaving a toddler unattended near dangerous water.

    • Simpler times. I remember looking up and seeing my two younger brothers on the other side of a main road going through our town. My mom had left them for a couple of minutes in the back yard and away they went. Would have been about 1956, I think. Before play dates and before child rearing paranoia that controls us all now.

  5. Actually I find the photo itself nothing special. Kind of mediocre if you ask me. The only reason the photo works is because we know what happened. In itself, this photo does not tell the story. If I didn’t know I could have though this couple was having a lovely day at the beach.

    Is it ethical? I know its legal. Well, if it was a massive tragedy that involved many people or if it was a public figure then I can see the reason to take this photo. But since this is a couple who we don’t know, a couple who just a had a very personal tragedy.. I see no reason why we, the public, have any interest in their affairs.

    So yes, to me this photo is unethical and the photographer used them for personal benefit and furthering his career. The fact he got a Pulitzer for it shows that he was successful.

    An average photo (seriously, its not a bad photo but its far from being anything special) of no importance that doesn’t justify benefiting from this couple’s personal tragedy.

  6. there is something odd about the way the way the light fall on them, does it match the surroundings?
    What is the dark shadow above his shoulder?
    possible cutout and retouch?

  7. I have to disagree with Dave, I think the story (if not the details) is perfectly clear.

    As to the ethical question…I refer to the endless Budd Dwyer arguments. With a camera, you have the ability to truly affect people, give them an understanding of what occurred (unbiased or not…) There is an imperative, I think, to share these scenes.

    Not a fully formed argument, I know, but I fall on the side of “not unethical.”

  8. It is only this version of the image that has been re-touched at some point.

    I looked through a ‘history of pulitzer winning photos’ at lunchtime, and in there this image doesn’t have the dark shading above his right shoulder or on the left hand side of the woman.

  9. I’m having trouble seeing this as offensive and/or unethical.

    The couple was photographed on a public beach where there was/is no expectation of privacy. Besides(although this may sound harsh it’s only an observation)in the end, the outcome of this (terribly sad…)situation wouldn’t have been changed, nor prevented, by the photographers’ restraint.

    IMO, documenting certain tragedies(through any medium but for example: photos taken during wartime, etc.), no matter how controversial, should be encouraged(or even honored in some specific situations). Sticking your fingers in your ears and closing your eyes doesn’t make the evil in this world go away but talking about it, photographing it, etc. helps us grow as a society; we (usually…!) learn from our mistakes.

    The comments on here inferring the photographer behaved inappropriately/unethically have some major undertones of fear/anxiety(seemingly originating from a place of deep empathy and/or sympathy, but fear none the less!)… I’m not convinced that you understand the existence of this picture does NOT devalue the couples’ experience in anyway, shape or form. It’s still deeply personal and I’m sure it still weighs heavy on their hearts. Every photograph on the planet =/= a child’s death being exploited. In a nutshell, the situation as a whole, is NOT objectified merely by a photo.

    You don’t have to see this picture in such a negative light. Nothing will bring the little boy back, but perhaps by sharing his story(we all know a picture says 1,000 words) it may help someone, somewhere in some strange way. There’s no need to condemn the photographer instantaneously as a terrible person(“Don’t shoot the messenger!”).

  10. The photo portrays the shock and tension in the face of the parents. Nice share every parent should read this kids should not be left unattended.

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