John Gaps III, an award-winning former Associated Press photographer who documented everything from war zones to the NCAA College World Series, was found dead at his home in Iowa, his family confirmed Tuesday. He was 63.
Gaps was found by police Monday inside his home in Des Moines when his son, Ethan Gaps, requested a welfare check after not hearing from his father for several days. Ethan Gaps said the cause of his father’s death was not immediately clear.
John Gaps had said it was the risks he took getting a unique shot — more so than his photography skills — that make his photos stand out.
“It’s interesting, because then you become aware of the fact that the work you did is going to outlive you. And that’s something,” he said.
Gaps’ career began while he was still attending Iowa State University, where he was a photographer for the Iowa State Daily. He was hired by the Omaha World-Herald in the early 1980s before joining the AP in 1985. While Gaps was based in Iowa, the AP sent him to cover conflicts and events around the world, including the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997.
In 1994, in the leg by an Israeli officer while covering street demonstrations in the Gaza Strip.
“I was photographing the scene when I noticed a soldier near the gate to the army base about 100 yards away from me. He was down on one knee, in a shooting position. He had a scope on his rifle and he was tracking me,” Gaps said at the time.
The soldier fired a .22-caliber plastic sniper round that lodged in Gaps’ thigh. It was removed by doctors at Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City before he was flown back to the U.S. The Israeli army later determined the soldier violated orders when he shot Gaps.
“John was a huge figure in the photo department. To say he was a big personality who could make a big picture is an understatement,” AP director of photography J. David Ake said. “He had a big heart to go with those big pictures he made while traveling the globe for the AP.”
In an interview with Des Moines television station WHO-13, Gaps recalled one instance where he pushed himself to get a unique shot: finding a high place far away from other photographers to cover Princess Diana’s funeral procession.
It still thrilled him to see his work in print, even in the last weeks of his life, his son Ethan said.
“I was at a gas station on Sept. 15 when I spotted a USA Today article featuring 40 years of iconic moments in history, and a couple of his photos were there,” he said. “So I got a copy and showed it to him. He thought that was really cool.”
Dave Tomlin, a former AP Kansas City bureau chief who hired Gaps, recalled the time Gaps was sent to Germany to cover the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Tomlin by then was working at AP’s headquarters in New York when he received what appeared to be a box of rocks from Gaps. In a note, Gaps explained the rocks were fragments of the wall and gave instructions for Tomlin to keep one for himself and “take one down the hall to the president’s office.”
“I just had to marvel at the brilliant politics of that maneuver,” Tomlin said. “I never would have thought to do that if I’d been in his shoes. So I did exactly as he asked.”
Gaps left the AP in 2000 to become senior photographer at the Des Moines Register, where he worked until 2011.
Cliff Schiappa, AP’s former Midwest regional photo editor, said he first met Gaps back in 1982 and recalls him as a talented and aggressive sports and news photographer, one who knew how to get a good picture.
“He was fast on his feet. He was smart. He could read a situation as it was unfolding and know where to be with his camera,” Schiappa said. “Those are good qualities whether you’re shooting a war or a football game.”
Gaps also had empathy for the people whose images he captured, which helped him connect with his subjects, Schiappa said.
“I think he got professional fulfillment from going to war,” he said.
AP photographer Scott Applewhite, who describes his friendship with Gaps as that of “army buddies,” said they would often share their experiences in places like Somalia, the Balkans and Haiti.
“We covered the Persian Gulf War and met up in Kuwait City on liberation day,” Applewhite said Tuesday. “We spoke to each other about such things, I suppose, because nobody else would understand.”
The executive editor of the Des Moines Register, Carol Hunter, said Gaps loved what he did.
“The truth is that he relished seeking out and telling stories, period, whether big or small, whether with his camera or through text or later video,” Hunter said.
Retirement was hard for Gaps, Applewhite said.
“I was one of the few comrades who truly knew his bravery, his bravado, his tears,” he said. “I recently told John that he was an exclamation point in a world full of commas. He liked that.”
Gaps was also known for his writing. He produced columns for newspapers throughout his career, and he published a book in 1997 of his own poetry and photos titled “God Left Us Alone Here: A Book of War,” that takes a poignant look at his encounters with war and conflict from around the world.
He is survived by his four children, John Henry Gaps, Sarah Bonsall, and Ethan Gaps, all of Des Moines, and Emilia Gaps, of Ankeny, as well as six grandchildren.