September 15, 2005

Bush's Bathroom Break: The Photographer Speaks

Rick Wilking on capturing the infamous Bush note, and on his experiences documenting the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

David Goldenberg

Rick Wilking left New Orleans a few days ago, after spending almost a week documenting the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He came to New York to document the 9/11 anniversary and to cover the UN World Summit. While the photographs he took in New Orleans are more powerful images, it is a silly note from the president to Condoleezza Rice that he captured that has garnered the most attention.

I have to go to the bathroom
Courtesy Da Vinci Institute
Rick Wilking
"I think I May Need A Bathroom break? Is this possible"

Yes, the note is real. And yes, the president really wrote it. "It was shot at a pretty good distance," Wilking tells Gelf. "I had no idea what was on the paper." Until, that is, the editors at Reuters enlarged it. "I was just as surprised as you," Wilking says.

Wilking has a long history of photographing Bush. He covered his campaign for Reuters, and even spent time working on the White House staff as a photographer. But he has not yet heard from the president—whom he says he knows very well—about the note. "I'm curious to know what the White House thinks," Wilking says, but adds that he is not worried about getting into any sort of trouble about the picture.

Perhaps one reason Wilking is not afraid is that he just underwent one of the more Hellish weeks in American history. In his account of his time in New Orleans for Reuters, Wilking describes the scenes of death and violence that he encountered in the days after the hurricane but before the National Guard restored order. "It was bordering on total anarchy," says Wilking. "The bad guys were taking advantage. They sensed blood in the water," he adds, saying that the scene reminded him of covering the war in Haiti.

When Wilking finally did leave, he, along with Getty Images photographer Mark Wilson, helped to evacuate five people from the area, including a man paralyzed by Parkinson's disease (Editor&Publisher). While many of Wilking's photos documenting the aftermath of Katrina were lost when his gear was stolen from his car in New Orleans, he did manage to upload several sad and captivating images.

Here are a few examples:

Floating down the street

Keeping the baby on high ground

Waiting on the porch

Waving goodbye

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Article by David Goldenberg

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