Looking Through Photos in the Dark

Babe Ruth stands about 10 feet in front of home plate, slightly toward third base.  Yankee Stadium is full and on its feet.  The 1949 Yankees line the first base line, hats off, listening to Babe speak.  There is no color but it is a sunny day.  He leans to his right on a baseball bat while speaking to the crowd.  His back is visible, and his number three is the focal point of the piece.  Banners and American flags wave above the third deck, as the Sultan of Swat says goodbye.  This photo won the 1949 Pulitzer prize.  Every person in attendance got, as John White said, “a front seat to history.”  Nat Fein captured it forever.

The next photo is six Japanese men on stage.   This took home the Pulitzer in 1961.  There is a black curtain behind three vertical banners, all bearing Japanese characters.  All the men are in black suits and are standing in a circle, except for one.  It is 17-year-old Otoya Yamaguchi.  He stands in the center, facing the camera.  He has a sword in his right hand and draws it back, planning on striking to his left.  His eyes are locked on the blade’s target, Inejiro Asanuma, a socialist politician who was in the middle of a speech.  Asanuma is trying to defend against the blow.  He has his hands in front of him at waist height as he jumps back.  The glasses on his face are falling off as the blade moves toward him.   The frame captures the moment a man dies.

A 1973 photo entitled, “Moment of Life” shows a new mother and her newborn child.  The mother has short dark hair.  She is smiling ecstatically as she has just given birth.  A man kneels beside her hospital bed.  He has on a striped shirt and a face mask as he rubs the woman’s shoulders.  The baby is still dirty with birthing fluids.  The umbilical cord has not yet been cut.  There are two sets of gloved hands in frame: one the doctor holding the child, the other holding a pair of surgical scissors.  Two clean white pair of shoes in the top right corner belong to onlookers of the action.  This photograph captures the moment life is brought into the world.  It’s the opposite of the Japanese men, but just as powerful.

In 1989, Ron Olshwanger captured a photograph of a St. Louis firefighter saving a child from a burning building.  The shot is foggy with smoke.  Adam Long, the firefighter, an African-American man with a thick mustache, holds a limp 2-year-old girl.  She is alive, but barely.  Long is in full gear aside from his helmet.  The child is naked, blackened with ash, her clothes have burnt off.  She is bleeding from a cut on her head.  Long is attempting mouth-to-mouth CPR for the toddler.  Behind him, other firefighters move to the smoke.  This photo is so powerful because within it, you can see the fireman’s emotions, frantically trying to save a life.  You can also see how fragile life is: a child, an innocent but a victim regardless.

The ’96 Pulitzer winner in photography shows an Oklahoma City fireman carrying the dead body of a bombing victim.  The photo shows the man in full gear.  He is wearing a red helmet with a yellow number 5 on the side.  His clothing is brown except for where it is stained with the victim’s blood.  He is noticeably heartbroken looking at the body.  The victim is a 1-year-old child, face covered in blood and body filled with shrapnel.  Not a heartwarming photo, but it tells a story.

That is a trait all of these photographs have in common: the stories they convey.  Even though no words are given within the photos, each photograph is so powerful because of the story captured by the shot.

William Snyder, a Pulitzer winner himself, said, “It’s not a photography contest.  It’s about telling some of the biggest stories of the year.”  The common thread among all five stories is the level of emotion they draw from an audience.  It does not matter the audience either.  The content speaks to all because it is so powerful.  Each of these images, though only a single frame, tells amazing stories, essential to history.

What the photojournalists are able to capture is remarkable.  Many have no idea there are journalists on the front lines, putting themselves in such danger.  They are surrounded by men carrying rifles and grenades and are armed only with a camera.  It is because of these brave women and men that many of these issues are seen by the public.  With a large enough audience, that has been emotionally moved, these photographs could potentially start major social reform.  The stories inspire people to act.