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.
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