Frame By Frame: Alysia Burton Steele On Her Hurricane Katrina Coverage
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Frame By Frame: Alysia Burton Steele On Her Hurricane Katrina Coverage

August 25, 2019


(film projector clicks) – People remember moments, they don’t necessarily remember headlines and leads to stories. My grandmother who
raised me, she was like, “Photography’s okay, but
how many black female “photographers do you know?” And I’m like, “Not
many, that’s the point.” When I got the call to
become a photo editor for the Dallas Morning News, I was thrilled. I wanted to be a photo editor because I wanted to have a little bit more control and say over what images were being used. (phone ringing) So I’m working at the night desk in Dallas and it’s August 2005. I’m looking at the warnings on TV and I called my boss, William Snyder. And I said, “I know we
have a plan for Katrina, “but I think it’s gonna be
bigger than we expected. “And I think we should
send someone sooner.” And he said, “You’re on
the desk, make a decision.” And I’m like, “I’ve been
here for two months. “I don’t want to mess this up.” But I’d rather be safe
than sorry, so I’m like, “Okay, I made a decision.” I went down the list and
called the photographers. Irwin Thompson, we call him I.T. He was the first one that said yes. And then we got the first image. (filmstrip clicking) That roof photo. Which is something we normally
see when it’s a storm. My responsibility was to
look at the wire everyday and see what was going on. – [Reporter] At least one levy
has broken in New Orleans. – [Alysia] The pictures started
to shift very quickly from (news reporters talking)
floods, with water to the roofs, to just the
rawness of destruction. And then you start to see death. I remember Irwin calling,
talking about seeing a older, African-American
woman on the bridge. Her body was covered. He said, “She could’ve
been my grandmother.” I remember just listening, I mean, what else could I do? There were many nights
at the end of the day where I’m just sitting
there and there were so many pictures of people we’ll never see. When I would get off work,
I’d sit on the balcony, drinking a beer, and I would
just listen to the sounds of my neighborhood. I just kept thinking if this
had happened in Beverly Hills, would this suffering
have lasted that long? Not only am I devastated
with what I’m seeing, but I’m becoming angry. (film projector clicks) AP had a black youth
wading through the water with a 12-pack of Pepsi
and he was looting. The AFP had a caption of an Anglo woman, she was pulling a loaf of
bread and she was finding food. And so I’m in the newsroom
and I’m just pissed because this is where
captions are really important. August 31, 2005, New Orleans, Louisiana, police searched a man accused
of looting on Interstate 10. They found beer in his bag. And we published that photo. Irwin wanted to illustrate
that not everybody was looting. He’s like I’m not seeing that. (filmstrip clicks) There’s this one man coming out of a store and he’s carrying one shirt. Irwin says, “Why do you
only have one shirt?” And the man said, “I only needed one.” And we published that photo as well. Months later, we’re gathered
in a room to decide on the Pulitzer Prize entry for breaking news. We’re taking things out,
we’re moving things around, we’re debating. William is fixated on
this photo of a heavyset African-American man on a roof. And he’s missing a leg
and he has a crutch. He’s like, “How did this
guy get on this roof?” “And who helped him? “And we need this photo in the entry.” But then when you look at
other photos in the aerials there was this one that stood out for me. (film projector clicks) Smiley Pool took an aerial photo. There’s a young woman
waving the American flag. She’s near the top of the photo. And there’s another American flag, it’s laying down. You think about gathering
your prized possessions during a hurricane, American
flag may not be on the top of that list. There was some spray paint
that says please help. And they don’t have the
E at the end of please. I don’t know if they
ran out of spray paint trying to get everything
that they could out there. I just remember seeing
the person wave the flag and I was like, “That’s the shot.” All that anger that I felt, all that frustration that I felt, it came out during that
meeting and I was like, “This is exactly what this is all about.” When I was done, he was quiet. And it made it into the entry. I can say that I was
super proud when we won. The resolve? I don’t know that I had any about what was happening with Katrina. I was just happy to be
there for the photographers and contribute whatever I could. (film projector clicks)

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  1. So let me get this right 🤔 your boss was a bigot & was using your skills to make your people look bad, while they fought for their God given right to exist? Thank the almighty for social media & 🤬 your boss!

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