Written words are powerful. But there’s a limit to that power. Great photography picks up where words stop and raises journalism to new heights. Photojournalism creates shared experiences that stay long after the headlines are forgotten. So, what makes a Pulitzer-worthy photograph? The answer is simple. These photographs capture history as it happens. They capture life. In some intense cases these photographs immortalize life’s final moments. Pulitzer-winning photography shows the rest of the world moments of great triumph. And also times of great tragedy. There are great images of loss, disaster and chaos. There are also many great images of hope, faith and the future. As American photojournalist John White says of his craft, “It’s a front seat to history.”
These photographs are some of the most iconic images of the last century. As example, consider Joe Rosenthal’s photograph “Iwo Jima,” from 1945. This image was taken during World War II. The history here is that American Marines were raising an American flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. In the image, Rosenthal shows viewers how far away from America these Marines were. They are shown on the top of a mountain. There is nothing in the background. Just fields in the distance. The Marines take up most of this black and white photograph. At their feet are debris and rubble. These show evidence of war. It’s unclear what they are raising the flag on. Could it be broken trees? Fallen soldiers? The image doesn’t make it clear. The motion of the men shows their strength and persistence. Their uniforms and helmets make it clear this is an act of victory. Most important, this image was so well-received that it became the inspiration for a memorial to the Marines.
Often Pulitzer photographs appear like works of art in black and white. This is not always true, and sometimes color makes the image even more meaningful. David Turnley’s 1990 photograph “Berlin Wall Falls” shows the power of color. In the center of the image is a young man wearing dark clothes and preparing to swing a hammer at a chisel he holds against the wall. The Berlin Wall takes up the entire left side of the image. The wall is covered in red and yellow graffiti. In the background viewers can see the green leaves of a tree. This tree gives a sense of hope as the young man works to help tear down the wall.
Some Pulitzer photographs show trouble and struggle at home. Stanley Forman’s photograph of the Boston School Busing Protest from 1976 shows this sort of struggle. This is iconic image of midcentury racial tension. There’s a lot of motion in this tragic image of a riot in Boston. In the background of the city, viewers see many people moving, fighting. Some people look confused or scared. In the front of the image there is a young black man held against his will by a man whose face we cannot see. On the left side of the photograph there is a young white man lunging toward this captive man. In the white man’s hands are the pole of an American flag. The flag drapes towards the ground helplessly. It looks like he is about to stab or jab the black man with the end of the flag pole. This image captures senseless racism at its worst. Forman shows the audience how terrible people can be to one another.
Another great Pulitzer photograph showing American struggle is Robert Jackson’s 1964 “Ruby Shoots Oswald.” The image is special because it captures the moment Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assassinated President John Kennedy, was shot. It’s a fairly dark black and white image with lots of men at the center. On the left is one man who appears unaware of what is happening. Just to the right of the center is Oswald. He looks terrified. Viewers cannot see Ruby’s face because his back is facing the camera. The men around Oswald appear frantic and alarmed. In this image, Jackson captured a pivotal moment in American history. He also captured the sense of being in the room when it happened.
Not all Pulitzer Prize photographs are about war and loss. Skeeter Hagler’s photographs of cowboys in Texas are just that kind of image. Taken in the 1980s, Hagler’s images might have been taken in the 1880s from the way some look. There is one particular photograph, taken at night, that shows a lone cowboy in the moonlight. The look of the dim light makes the ground look like it could be the surface of the moon. It’s rough and flat and barren. There is a fence with a little fog, but little else the viewers can see. This photograph shows the audience how lonely working as a cowboy can be. The flatness makes this feeling more intense. Looking at this photograph, viewers are left with a sense of duty and hard work, but also of loss. The only cowboy in the image walks proudly toward the right edge of the image. He walks with purpose. In this image there is no tragedy, only a pause.
These five images are only a limited example of the many award-winning images captured by photojournalists. These images make viewers laugh, or cry. Some images scare audiences. Others remind viewers of what is important in life. It’s this power that makes these images so important. These images may evoke many different emotions, but they certainly all do one thing very well. They capture the human experience.