Pulitzer Winning Photos Are Interactive to the Mind

Where would the world be without photos? Movies wouldn’t be around. History and journalism are now more visual media than ever. Journalists use photos in television, the web and newspapers. People are drawn to imagery, no pun intended. Pulitzer Prize winning photos are the ones that you can sense. They are the photos in which you can smell, see, hear, touch and taste what is within the photo. They break your empathy and make you show emotions. They make you feel like a part of history by seeing them. That is a Pulitzer Prize winning photo. Photojournalists are responsible for capturing these photos and transporting them into people’s minds.

“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” was taken by Joe Rosenthal on Feb. 23, 1945. It has six United States Marines hoisting a flag during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. This photo has been immortalized and most have probably seen it. Photojournalism is about reporting the news but also capturing the atmosphere and setting of an event. As journalist John White says, “It’s a front seat to history.” Everything about the Pacific Theater in World War II can be felt in this photo.

The Japanese were fierce and refused to surrender. To create a story of the photo, the flag is heavier because it metaphorically represents how tough the fighting was while having the weight of all the American soldiers lives on it. When you see it, you can feel the weight of the flag. Both the American lives lost in the war and the exhaustion of their effort against the Japanese can be felt. Taking six soldiers to hoist a flag symbolizes the toughness of winning the battle. It’s like saying, “We did all this.  Now we have to hoist a flag.” It’s a testament to the exhaustion of the battle, while also honoring those who lost their lives with the flag. With every flag the American soldiers put up, the people knew the closer they were to ending the war.

The photo of Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder by Jack Ruby was taken Nov. 24, 1963. It was taken by Robert H. Jackson of the Dallas Morning Herald. Lee Harvey Oswald was charged with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This photo includes great examples of the power of photojournalism. Sometimes photos should not be planned, which is what makes this so impactful. A quote from photojournalist Stan Grossfeld encapsulates the impact of this photo. “It’s an honor to be a journalist.  If I care about something, I can make half a million people care.”

How many people do you think cared about the assassin of JFK either getting what he deserved or being able to see the event as they imagined it? That is captured in the photo. It also provokes thought. You can see the reaction of Oswald as he is shot and the surprised look of his escort. You can see the cold-bloodedness of Jack Ruby, even though he isn’t in direct sight. You can feel his vengeance and emotion that millions of other Americans felt. You can imagine Oswald’s scream of pain as he is shot. You can see and hear the panic of all the people in the background when the shot rings out. Jackson must have snapped the picture at the exact right time. Photojournalism isn’t an exact science. That is the beauty of it. You never know when something is going to happen. The photo perfectly captures a moment in time.

“Burst of Joy,” was taken on March 17, 1973, by Slava Veder. The photo has Air Force Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm reuniting with his family after returning home from being a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He isn’t the focus of the photo. His 15-year-old daughter, Lorrie, is reaching out to hug him. The rest of the family follows. It feels a little bit like the rest of the family can’t bring themselves to believe it’s really him for a brief second, while she is totally committed.  Photojournalist Carol Guzy said, “Someone once told me that empathy was not imagining how you would feel in a particular situation, but actually feeling what the other person is feeling.”

This photo and its place in history can make you feel how the people in the photo do. The Vietnam War and the 1960s in the U.S. were a time of turmoil. This photo, through one soldier and one family, symbolizes the end to that era. It tells us that it is time to start mending the damage from war and protests.  Photojournalist Eddie Adams said, “If it makes you laugh.  If it makes you cry.  It’s a good photo.” This photo can make you cry and, more important, it resonates. You will remember it because of the emotions of the people in it. You think about how Stirm was a prisoner and how long his family couldn’t see him. How they probably wondered if he was even alive. Like the Ruby and Iwo Jima photos, it captures the setting and atmosphere of the event.

There was a series of photos taken by Carol Guzy and Michel Du Cille of the Miami Herald after the Nevado Del Ruiz volcano erupted in Columbia. The eruption happened on Nov. 13, 1985. In a disaster, sometimes a lot of people’s dying feels like a statistic. A photo of one person’s death can elicit more responses. Guzy said about disasters, “You rage inside at the helplessness.  To try to deal with it, you seek out elements of humanity and courage.” Her words ring true.

There is one photo of a person’s extended arm caught in a mudflow. It symbolizes the human will to live because it tells a story. You think about if that person was trying to swim, trying to move as much as possible before being engulfed in debris. You imagine how it must feel to be hopeless and then you think about how many more people that happened to. You can ask questions. Was this person forced to give up? How long did the person live after getting caught in the flow? You put yourself in those shoes and feel the despair of the situation and how the person couldn’t die on the individual’s own terms. The arm shows the inescapability of the disaster for many others.

There was a series of photos taken by Paul Watson of the Toronto Star.  These photos show Somali people dragging a U.S. soldier’s body across the streets of Mogadishu. The photos prompted reactions of many people, foreign and domestic, and eventually helped lead to the U.S. forces leaving Mogadishu in 1993. It really sums up the U.S. invasion of Mogadishu as a lost cause. People will see just one solider and say why are we there? Who are we trying to help this time? Why do we always have to be the peacekeepers? In the words of journalist John White, “Everyone has a story.  And we sing their song.  If we don’t do it—if the journalist doesn’t do it—who’s going to do it?”

Journalists act as another branch of the government, first responders and curators of the truth. Watson went into danger to take the photos of this event. You can see it from the look of the crowd in the second photo that they were starting to turn against him. You can feel the hostility. You can hear the Somali people screaming and throwing objects like a hostile crowd at a sporting event. The photo also breaks conventional obscenity rules, as it shows the soldier naked. You can read more into this as censorship is OK with showing a dead soldier, but not if the person is naked. That also makes the picture more special. The photos tell the truth to Americans and others about the brutality of the Somalian civil war going on at the time. If the real government won’t say what is going on, Watson shows it.

What makes a photo a Pulitzer Prize winner? It is the combination of random timing, evoking an emotional response and triggering the senses. It makes a 2-D picture turn into a 3-D motion picture within the mind. It can show the effort of journalists to go into the face of danger and come out with something that some will care about. It can put a price on their life. There is no price to history though.  And photojournalism shows that events will always be closer to people through visualization.