Some "looting" vs. "finding" answers found

A photographer clears up how he came up with a controversial photo caption.

Published September 2, 2005 11:00PM (EDT)

Salon editorial fellow Aaron Kinney takes another look at the "looting" in New Orleans.

At least one aspect of the racially tinged media coverage of looting in New Orleans has become clearer. Chris Graythen, a freelance photographer for Getty Images, explained in a post to an online photographers forum why two white people were described in the caption of one of his images as having "found" items from a grocery store in the flooded city.

Graythens image of the white couple caused a stir this week when it was juxtaposed on Yahoo News with a similar photo of a black man who was described in that caption as having "looted" a store. In a post to Wednesday evening, Graythen angrily defended his choice of words, saying that he saw the couple, who were captured wading through chest-deep water, in the vicinity of a flooded grocery store. "[T]here were other people in the water, both white and black," Graythen wrote. "I looked for the best picture. There were a million items floating in the water -- we were right near a grocery store that had 5-plus feet of water in it. It had no doors. The water was moving, and the stuff was floating away."

The photographer who took the other controversial shot, Dave Martin of the Associated Press, said he saw the person in his photograph and others loot an abandoned grocery store, AP representatives told Salon.

But the "looting-finding" drama promises to be the beginning, not the end, of racial controversies stemming from the flood of New Orleans. Most of the people who were left behind in the city were poor black residents without the means to escape. And though blacks arent the only ones who have taken advantage of abandoned stores, theyre the ones featured in repeated video loops on television news coverage. Given calls by Fox News host Bill OReilly and others for looters to be shot on sight, its no wonder that racial tensions are flaring.

President Bush exhibited his fundamental ignorance of what was happening in New Orleans when he told ABCs Diane Sawyer Wednesday morning that he supported a "zero-tolerance" policy for looters, even for those merely seeking food and water. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan reiterated that stance on Thursday. "We understand the need for food and water and supplies of that nature," McClellan said. "That's why we have a massive effort underway to continue getting food and water and ice to those who are in need. There are ways for them to get that help. Looting is not the way for them to do it."

Lets pose a hypothetical: A man searching for water for his wife and child, both suffering from heat exhaustion up on the freeway, comes across an abandoned grocery store, where he can grab a couple bottles of water and a bag of potato chips. Hes supposed to wait a couple more days until the National Guard arrives?

Some in the news media have not made it clear enough that there are three types of looters in New Orleans. First, there are those obtaining items like food, drink and clothing that are critical to their survival. These are not looters at all. They are human beings with functioning survival instincts. Second, there are the people walking out of stores like Wal-Mart with televisions and other non-essential goods. They are opportunists and looters, but given the devastation in New Orleans, theyre not even worth a second thought. Third, there are the people who are roaming the streets with guns and terrorizing and robbing other needy citizens. These are criminals, and they should be met with force.

Its time to put the looting issue to bed. New Orleans is a disaster area, and people who were taking food and water before the government showed up with relief were perfectly justified. If the slums of New Orleans had been filled with white people, they would have done the exact same thing.

By Aaron Kinney

Aaron Kinney is a writer in San Francisco. He has a blog.

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