John Gaps III, Iowan who traveled the world as an AP photojournalist, dies

Pioneering and longtime Iowan international war photojournalist John Gaps III died this week at the age of 63, his family confirmed to the Register on Tuesday.

Gaps’ decades-long career has taken him around the world to cover some of the world’s most historic events.

He first discovered his passion for photojournalism as a student at Iowa State University, according to his son Ethan Gaps. Beginning his career at the Omaha World Herald, John Gaps then worked as a photographer for the Associated Press.

His former AP colleague Brian Horton described Gaps as a pioneer in the field who was one of the first photographers to adopt digital cameras. He was a “larger-than-life character” who commanded every room he entered, Horton said, and his ingenuity and dedication to his craft continue to influence photojournalists today.

“John was the kind of person you could count on to come back with a photo, and it would be a good photo, and that’s a tough role to fill,” Horton said.

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Gaps’ career with the AP has taken him around the world to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall and Princess Diana’s funeral. He covered at least three Olympics, according to his son, and conflicts in Nicaragua, Saudi Arabia, Kosovo, Somalia, Israel and many others.

“There literally wasn’t a big story where John wasn’t there,” Horton said.

In 1994, John Gaps was shot in the knee by an Israeli soldier while covering conflict in the Gaza Strip. His son said his father had faced many close contacts with death throughout his career, but he was never deterred.

He described his father as fearless and deeply motivated to bear witness to historical and often tragic events, even when it meant putting his own life in danger.

“He wanted to give a voice to people who had no voice,” Ethan Gaps said.

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Ethan Gaps said his father could spend hours telling stories of his travels. But for John Gaps, the most meaningful moments were not the events he witnessed, but rather the people he met along the way, from residents struggling to protect themselves and their families to guides who helped save his life and protect him abroad, his son says.

“He saw a lot for one guy. And he took a lot of that pain with him until the end,” Ethan Gaps said.

After his AP career, John Gaps worked as a photojournalist with the Des Moines Register from 2000 until his retirement in 2011, Ethan Gaps said.

At the Registry, John Gaps was also Director of Community Publications.

According to Carol Hunter, editor of the Des Moines Register, “He immersed himself in telling community stories with the same zeal that he sought out iconic images seen on front pages around the world.”

“The truth is he loved to seek out and tell stories, period, whether big or small, whether with his camera, by text, or later by video,” she said.

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After his retirement, John Gaps spent the rest of his career working as a fine art photographer and running the Madhaus Gallery in Winterset.

Despite his globe-trotting career, his colleague AP Horton described him as someone devoted to his hometown.

“The funny thing is, John was the first to call when something was going on and say, ‘I’m ready to go. But he also loved going back to Des Moines,” Horton said. “For me, that made him a little bit different. When [journalists] enjoyed the success that John has had, they don’t think much of home, and John does.”

John Gaps is survived by his four children, John Henry Gaps, Ethan Gaps, Sarah Gaps Bonsall and Emilia Gaps. The family has not yet released any information regarding the funeral or memorial services.

Francesca Block is a breaking news reporter at the Des Moines Register. Contact her at or on Twitter at@francescablock3.

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