In one of the photos, a man wades through chest-deep waters with a large black bag filled with items from a grocery store. In another, two people wade through equally high waters, carrying bread and soda.
They were just two out of hundreds of stunning images transmitted Tuesday, the day after Katrina ravaged New Orleans. What has drawn attention to these two photos, though, is their captions.
In the first, the young man, who is black, is described as having “looted” the items. In the second, the pair, who are white or light-skinned, are described as “finding” the items.
The photos were by two different photographers working for two different news agencies, The Associated Press and AFP/Getty Images. But they appeared together on Yahoo News, and they sparked a flurry of blog entries, emails and calls contending the captions were unfair to blacks.
“The pictures appear to be identical but one individual is ‘looting’ and the other is ‘finding’ needed items!” one person wrote the AP. “This is irresponsible journalism and fuels the attitude that ‘all’ African-Americans are looters.”
On Thursday, Yahoo withdrew the photo of the light-skinned pair at the request of Agence France Presse, which distributes Getty’s U.S-produced photos internationally. In a note, Yahoo wrote it “regrets that these photos and captions, viewed together, may have suggested a racial bias on our part.
AFP said it withdrew the photo because it had been flooded with time-consuming phone calls and emails, while already stretched covering the enormous tragedy.
“It’s safe to say that it was just causing us a lot of problems,” said Bob Pearson, AFP’s director of photography in the United States.
The Associated Press said its policy was clear. “When we see people go into businesses and come out with goods, we call it looting,” said Santiago Lyon, AP’s director of photography. “When we just see them carrying things down the road, we call it carrying items.”
Lyon said the photographer who took Tuesday’s photo, Dave Martin, had seen the man go into the store and take out the items.
As for the other photo, Getty said it stood by its caption and its photographer, Chris Graythen, who says the subjects of his photo were simply picking up items floating by in the dank waters.
And Graythen, frustrated by the controversy, wrote an emotional response on a photojournalism Web site, SportsShooter.com.
“These people were not ducking into a store and busting down windows to get electronics,” he wrote. “They picked up bread and cokes that were floating in the water. They would have floated away anyhow.”
Yahoo said it believed the controversy was merely a result of the juxtaposition of the two photos.
“We’ve explained that this was two separate news organizations, two separate photographers and two separate occasions,” said Joanna Stevens, spokeswoman for Yahoo Inc. “Once people understand that, they’re no longer angry with us.”