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One Picture

Photographer: Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Subject: Laughing gull
Where: East Grand Terre Island, Louisiana
Camera: Canon EOS 1D Mark IV
Lens: 300mm lens
Exposure: ISO 320; aperture 6.3; shutter speed 1/1000 second

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This is a laughing gull. It was rescued on June 3 from the brownie-batter-like sludge lathering its entire body.

Earlier that day photographer Charlie Riedel and other press members helicoptered to Louisiana’s East Grand Terre Island with the state’s governor, Bobby Jindal. They planned to document progress on a sand berm being built to protect the barrier island from oil pouring out of the Deepwater Horizon well. Upon arrival, they found horror: a handful of birds, including brown pelicans and the gull above, smeared in crude from beak to foot. “Once the birds were noticed, obviously the story changed immediately,” says Riedel, a general assignment photographer with the Associated Press. The governor’s office called wildlife rescuers, and Riedel snapped away. He sent about 50 photos over the wire and filed as many in the AP’s archive. Frozen in sepia-toned time, several of the images resemble ghastly bronze sculptures in some kind of sick artist’s portfolio. “This [gull] is probably the most helpless-looking bird image from the bunch,” says Riedel—which could explain why its haunting visage showed up in newspapers nationwide and on the Yahoo! website the following day.

The rescued birds were treated at the Fort Jackson rehabilitation site. After brown pelicans, laughing gulls have been the species most often recovered since the spill began. Despite its looks, this individual was apparently in decent shape, according to Jay Holcomb, director of the International Bird Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. “[It] was captured before it was able to get hypothermic and completely exhausted,” he told National Public Radio on June 4. Whether it’s still alive is another question. Greg Butcher, Audubon’s director of bird conservation, isn’t hopeful. “I’d be shocked if it survived,” he says.

If there’s any consolation, it’s that Riedel’s image reflects only a few birds witnessed in similar extreme predicaments in the Gulf. With so much dispersant being used, crude has been arriving onshore patchwork style rather than in waves. Still, small amounts of slick can be harmful. Slightly oiled birds are more mobile and harder for rescuers to catch, so they suffer for longer, says Butcher. And nightmarish scenarios like the one Riedel has immortalized could still be unfolding out of sight, making his photograph a potentially iconic symbol of what has become the worst oil spill in U.S. history. “I think, right now, this is one of the images that best puts a face on this disaster,” he says. “But who knows what will happen before it’s all over?” Despite the gut-wrenching possibilities, Riedel won’t let his emotions take over. “The best you can do is just do your job,” he says. “Tell the story, get the word out, and hopefully people start caring about what’s going on.”—Julie Leibach

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