Alan Diaz, photographer behind Elian Gonzalez image, dies at 71

This image of a frightened Elian Gonzalez being held as federal agents raided his relatives' Miami home earned Alan Diaz a Pulitzer prize.

Alan Diaz, whose photograph of a terrified 6-year-old Cuban boy named Elian Gonzalez earned him the Pulitzer Prize, has died. He was 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 Miami home where he lived with relatives after being found floating in an inner tube 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,” Associated Press 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.”

Not one to boast, Diaz rarely brought up the Elian story himself, but he would usually discuss it with enough encouragement.

He had been freelancing for the AP in November 1999 when a boater found the Cuban boy floating in the waters off Fort Lauderdale. Diaz spent the next few months chatting with Gonzalez’s relatives and neighbors, earning their trust by respecting an order from the boy’s uncle to not speak to the child.

Because of those relationships, he was the only photographer to capture the moment when U.S. immigration agents ended a bitter international custody battle with a pre-dawn raid the day before Easter in 2000. The Pulitzer-winning photo shows an armed agent reaching out to toward a terrified Elian, seconds before the boy was pulled out of his uncle’s home so he could be returned to his father in Cuba.

Diaz said he was just in the right place at the right time.

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, kicking off a 17-year-career with the wire service. Within months of starting, Diaz was taking photos of hanging chads during the Florida recount for the 2000 presidential election. The next year, Diaz flew to New York just days after 9/11, when planes were allowed back in the sky, to help document the recovery. Diaz was in Florida for the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, when storm after storm caused billions in damage across the Southeastern U.S. More recently, he rushed to Orlando, Fla., in 2016 to cover another tragedy, a shooting at a gay nightclub that left 49 people dead.

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.

“Alan Diaz will be remembered for taking one of the most iconic photographs in Miami’s history,” AP Miami photo editor Marta Lavandier said. “But what is less known about Alan is that he was a humble, dedicated, hard-working news photographer that loved covering every aspect of his community.”