Photojournalists Covering Katrina Fall Victim To Growing Violence, Chaos

Sep 8, 2005

By Donald R. Winslow, News Photographer magazine

AUSTIN, TX – As photojournalists continue to document the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s violent assault on the Gulf Coast, today they also found themselves documenting new violence and death among the survivors, the refugees, and the looters and police and rescuers in New Orleans, while some photojournalists even fell victim to the violence themselves. And a reporter for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans is still missing and has not been heard from since last weekend when he was sent to Mississippi to cover the storm. (He's since been found.)

Two veteran photojournalists - NPPA member Rick Wilking of Reuters and Getty's MarkWilson - were robbed of cameras and computer equipment today while on assignment in a neighborhood in New Orleans, and a photojournalist and a reporter were confronted at gunpoint and slammed against a wall by police following a shoot-out between looters and cops that left at least one person dead.

Another photojournalist -Lucas Oleniuk of theToronto Star - was knocked to the ground by police, his gear taken from him initially, when he photographed them shooting at looters and then beating one. In response to the growing violence and an increasing sense of despair among the stranded survivors, some television networks have hired armed private security firms to protect their journalists as they work to cover the story.

Peter Kovacs, managing editor of The Times-Picayune, says reporterLeslie Williams, who was assigned to cover the hurricane on the Mississippi coast, is still missing. No one at the newspaper has heard from Williams since last weekend. Kovacs posted a note to Poynter’s JimRomenesko saying, “He's an extraordinarly cautious guy and he's covered a lot of hurricanes. So I'm thinking positive thoughts even though I haven't heard anything. I keep thinking he's okay." By Friday, the newspaper learned that the reporter's mother is also missing. Kovacs said they have assigned a reporter in Mississippi to search for Williams. (He's since been found.)

The environment journalists are working in has shifted from one of a post-storm rescue and recovery to one that’s more akin to urban warfare. Tonight’s news reports a desperate situation in New Orleans that is spiraling out of control, with fighting breaking out among the hurricane survivors, more looting and gunfire, reports of anarchy in many areas, and more bodies floating in the waterways and in the debris. Today there were reports of rapes taking place in and around the Superdome while outside the Convention Center bodies litter the sidewalks. More dead have been dragged to the corners of the building, the Associated Press reports, as there are no resources to deal with picking up the dead. Amidst this chaos and growing tension, photojournalists find themselves working in a growingly hostile environment where they are less welcome today than yesterday.

Toronto Star staff photojournalist Lucas Oleniuk was taken to the ground by police in the Spanish Quarter after he photographed a firefight between looters and police, and police were then reportedly “beating on” a looter. A coworker at the Toronto Star toldNews Photographer magazine tonight, “The cops saw him and put him down, and took his gear. At first they were going to take all of his cameras, but he talked them into only taking the memory cards and letting him keep the cameras.” Oleniuk’s coworker says the photojournalist, who was not injured in the incident, went to New Orleans the day after the hurricane hit.

New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Gordon Russell wrote on Thursday afternoon that “the city is not safe for anyone.” Russell and freelance photojournalist Marko Georgiev – who was shooting for The New York Times – were in the Lower Garden District in an SUV, Russell says, where he “feared for my life and felt our safety was threatened at nearly every turn.” Russell says throngs of hungry and desperate people overwhelmed the few military and law enforcement people on the scene at the Superdome and Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, and “there was no crowd control. People were swarming. It was a near riot situation.”

Georgiev says, “We came upon a body (while driving) apparently shot by the police. While I was still driving I took a few photos through the open window and I heard an officer yell, ‘Get that camera, now!’ About a half dozen cops started running toward the car. Since the car was still in motion, and I saw them drawing and raising their guns at us and afraid they would shoot us, I slammed on the brakes.

“Before I knew it, I was thrown out of the car, the camera ripped from my hand, the other camera taken from the car, and I was on the car with my legs spread, hands up, a gun pointed in my neck. I was unable to see what was going on with Gordon. I was screaming “We are press” and I saw things from my car thrown on the ground, and the car was being frantically searched by the police.”

Georgiev told News Photographer, “As soon as they confirmed that we were accredited press they mellowed down a bit and gave my cameras back, they threw Gordon’s notebook on the ground and ordered us to get lost. After quickly picking up our stuff and getting in the car we drove away, then I realized the CF memory card from my other camera was missing – but not the one with the picture of the dead body.”

The Times-Picayune’s online blog later quoted Russell’s description of the scene as being one that was “the result of gunfire between police and civilians that left one man dead in a pool of blood.” Russell wrote that he and Georgiev “retreated to my home where we hid, and plan to flee the city tonight.” Russell was quoted in the blog as telling the newspaper, “There is a totally different feeling here than there was yesterday. I’m scared. I’m not afraid to admit it. I’m getting out of here.”

“I was afraid that we were going to get shot by some nervous police officer,” Georgiev said. “And that night in front of Gordon’s house (in New Orleans), were were rounded up by police and handcuffed while trying to file pictures from our cars."

Reuters and Getty Images confirm tonight that Reuters photojournalist Rick Wilking and Getty Images photojournalist MarkWilson had cameras and laptop computers stolen from a car they were using as they got out of the vehicle to photograph rescue efforts in a New Orleans neighborhood. Michael D. Sargent, vice president of news for Getty, said the two were not harmed and that they are safe tonight, but that their gear is gone. A Reuters picture editor in Washington said the trouble apparently started when the two photographers got out of their car with cameras and were seen, and then targeted, by a neighborhood crowd.

Pictures from earlier in the day by Wilking before he was robbed show people outside the Convention Center trying to revive an elderly woman who has collapsed, and a man holding a tiny baby in his arms as he covers with a sheet the dead body of an elderly man who is sitting in a chair, reportedly left there for two days now, as thousands of survivors stand by waiting for evacuation buses. Yesterday, Wilking’s photographs showed a dead woman sitting in her wheelchair outside her home in East New Orleans where her family had left her after the storm.

Many of today’s pictures from New Orleans show refugees dealing with a growing sense of despair as relief efforts failed to materialize in many areas and evacuation efforts were halted due to violence. A picture by photojournalist Michael Ainsworth of the Dallas Morning News of people shoving in a crush as they lined up to board an evacuation bus ran huge, six columns across and deep, on Friday's Dallas Morning News front page. At The Advocate in Baton Rouge, LA, the front page was dominated by a picture shot by photojournalist Richard Alan Hannon of storm refugees holding a woman and praying over her "as her life ebbed away" on the sidewalk outside the Superdome where refugees waited for food, water, and evacuation.

NBC News has reportedly hired a private security firm whose officers are former soldiers or police, and who are licensed to carry weapons and trained to protect news crews as they do their jobs, to protect their staff members in the Gulf Coast region as they report the hurricane aftermath story. The move was prompted by what the news crews were witnessing: looting, gunfire, crimes, and gun-totting gangs moving freely about the streets. NBC News vice president David Verdi in New York told Paul J. Gough of The Hollywood Reporter, “We’ve never been in a situation domestically like this, where the populace has been cut off from the rest of the world and there’s no food and water.”

The Times-Picayune is still out of their building and some staff members are working from a remote location at the journalism school atLouisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA. CNN and WWL-TV have also based some operations out of LSU, as well as one of KHOU-TV’s satellite trucks.

The Times-Picayune tonight hopes to put out their first print edition since the hurricane hit, using the presses at the Houma Courier and delivering the newspaper wherever they can reach. They’ve published daily on the Internet and made downloadable Acrobat .PDF files of the newspaper and posted them on their Web site.

At the Biloxi Sun-Herald there’s still no electricity and no plumbing. They’ve dug trenches outside the building to use as latrines, and several recreational vehicles have been parked in the paper’s parking lot. The newspaper is still awaiting the arrival of a fuel truck to keep their generators going and they’ve increased security at the site. Today they printed and distributed a 24-page, two-section paper to 20,000 readers. They have now been able to make contact with up to 70 percent of Sun-Herald employees, and half of those reached report that their homes have been destroyed. Sun-Herald columnist Jeanne Prescott lost her sister and brother-in-law to the storm, Knight Ridder reports.

Read yesterday's story about photojournalists covering Hurricane Katrina's aftermath and the efforts newspapers and television stations are making to cover and publish the news.