MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) — The man behind one of the most memorable South Florida photos of the 1990’s has passed away.
Retired Associated Press photojournalist Alan Diaz, whose photo of a terrified 6-year-old Cuban boy named Elian Gonzalez earned him the Pulitzer Prize, died at age 71.
Diaz’s daughter, Aillette Rodriguez-Diaz, confirmed that he died Tuesday. The cause of death wasn’t immediately known.
“He was the king of the family,” Rodriguez-Diaz said. “He cared about all of his friends and colleagues. His life was photography and my mother.”
Diaz’s wife, Martha, died nearly two years ago.
Diaz’s iconic image shows an armed U.S. immigration agent confronting the boy in the Little Havana home where he lived with relatives after being found floating off the Florida coast.
“Alan Diaz captured, in his iconic photographs, some of the most important moments of our generation – the bitter, violent struggle over the fate of a small Cuban boy named Elian Gonzalez, the magnified eye of a Florida election official trying to make sense of hanging chads and disputed ballots in the 2000 presidential election,” AP executive editor Sally Buzbee said.
“He was gravelly-voiced and kindhearted, generous with his expertise. And like all great photographers, he was patient. He was able to wait for the moment.”
Diaz reminisced about getting the award-winning photo when he retired in December. He was freelancing for AP when a boater found a 5-year-old Cuban boy floating in an inner tube in the waters off Fort Lauderdale on Thanksgiving Day 1999.
He would be the only photojournalist to capture the moment five months later when U.S. immigration agents ended a bitter international custody battle with a pre-dawn Good Friday raid, pulling a terrified Elian Gonzalez from his uncle’s Little Havana home so he could be returned to his father in Cuba.
Diaz said he was just in the right place at the right time.
He had spent months chatting with Gonzalez’s relatives and neighbors over cafecito and cigarettes, earning their trust by respecting an order from the boy’s uncle to not speak to the child.
When he heard a radio call that the raid had begun, Diaz jumped a fence and was ushered into the house by a friend of Gonzalez’s relatives. Huddled with relatives in a bedroom, the terrified boy asked Diaz, “What’s happening? What’s happening?” Aiming his camera at the bedroom door, Diaz tried to soothe the child, saying, “Nothing’s happening, it’s going to be all right.”
Moments later, armed federal agents wearing tactical gear burst inside to find the crying boy in the arms of the Cuban boater who had rescued him. Diaz later handed off his camera’s memory card without checking the images — he just called AP’s photo editor in Miami and said, “I got the shot.”
After the image hit the wires and network television news, Diaz saw how both Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Cuban-American community leaders used it to argue that the other side was brutal and heartless.
“I have no opinion on it. I shot the moment. That’s all,” Diaz said last year. “Good or bad, that’s what happened that morning.”
The AP hired Diaz as a staff photographer two months after the raid, sending him to cover sporting events such as the Super Bowl, hurricanes, the aftermath of Sept. 11, elections and breaking news. After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2001, he was awed by the celebration from his heroes in photojournalism.
“Joe Rosenthal wanted to meet me? Wow,” Diaz said, still shaking his head at being honored by the AP photojournalist who produced the iconic image of U.S. Marines and a Navy sailor raising the American flag over Iwo Jima.
Diaz was born in New York to Cuban parents. He spent his adolescence in Cuba, where he studied photography with Alberto Korda, whose 1960 portrait of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara became one of the most reproduced images in history.
In 1978, he moved to Miami and began shooting in Little Havana for Cuban-American organizations and publications. One memorable assignment was a meeting of leaders of anti-Castro efforts and Frank Sturgis, one of the Watergate burglars, who had fought alongside Castro in Cuba before turning against him.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)