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.

Liked it? Take a second to support Iconic Photos on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

0 thoughts on “Tragedy by the Sea

  1. 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.

  2. 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!”).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *