What Makes a Picture Worth 1,000 Words?

One picture can capture a moment worth far more than 1,000 words. Just ask these Pulitzer Prize winners. All of the following photojournalists and their pictures understand this concept. Whether they capture inspirational moments or devastating events, each picture is a brief moment in people’s lives. It is the journalist’s job to tell their story and, as John White said, “If the journalist doesn’t do it, who’s going to do it?” In the film, “A Glimpse of Life: The Pulitzer Photographs,” White and other Pulitzer winners describe what it takes to be a photojournalist, including the moving moments and the horrible sorrow.

The image of soldiers raising the American flag on Iwo Jima is very well known. It has become the symbol for national monuments and memorial pieces. Before the statues were built and art made, that image was of soldiers finishing their job. Four or five soldiers putting the American flag in the rubble of war shows the strength and resilience of soldiers across the globe. Taken by Joe Rosenthal in 1945, this image was a turning point for American forces in World War II. When speaking about the picture, photojournalist Eddie Adams said, “A still picture is in front of you all the time…. The most powerful weapon that we have in the world is a still photograph.”

War is time of incredible suffering, yet there are so many moments that are important to capture. The Vietnam War was one such war. With the massive amount of public attention, good and bad, it was up to the journalists and photojournalists to tell the story of the war. John White explained that photojournalism is “a front seat to history.” Two pictures, taken four years apart, show death and pain at the hands of Vietnamese and American troops. The first, taken by Eddie Adams in 1969, is of a prisoner of war and a Vietnamese general walking up to him in the road and executing him. The man pulling the trigger is calm, easily ending the man’s life.

As for the second picture, taken by Nick Ut in 1973, this was the aftermath of a napalm bombing on a small village. Families and young children are running away from the smoke and fire. Many are naked with their clothes having been burned off by the blaze. The picture clearly sees a young girl, naked and crying, while her home burns behind her. The general rule for news at that time had been no “titillating” nudity in the papers. Since there was nothing “titillating” about this image, they made an exception for this one because of the raw emotion shown.

Many images that come from war bring out emotions—whether anger and sadness or inspiration and respect. Natural disasters do the same thing, except the anger and sadness is directed at the earth. Carol Guzy and Michel duCille know firsthand what that is like. “You rage inside at the helplessness. To try to deal with it, you seek out elements of humanity and courage,” Guzy said, remembering what it was like in Colombia in 1986. A massive mudslide claimed the lives of more than 20,000 people. Guzy and duCille were there to capture the aftermath on film. They took a picture of a young girl, stuck in water, and rescue workers trying to save her. After 72 hours, she died from her injuries without being freed from the water.

Pulitzer Prize winning photos don’t need to be of death and suffering. Sometimes, it’s the pictures of freedom and success that make that picture Pulitzer worthy. In 1990, the Berlin Wall fell and signaled the end of the Cold War in Europe. David Turnley was there in 1990 as the destruction of the wall began. The image of a young man, with a hammer and chisel, breaking away piece by piece a wall that symbolized restriction and conformity changed the meaning of the wall. With its destruction, it became an image of freedom.

“There’s something about this business that can catapult you to the highest sense of being and purpose,” Don Bartletti said. That “sense of being and purpose” is what makes photojournalism more than a profession, but a calling. It requires courage, compassion, curiosity and empathy. Photojournalists witness the worst moments in history, but also the best. And all so that they can capture and share them for the rest of the world.

Photo by Stanley Forman.