Reflections on “A Glimpse of Life: The Pulitzer Photographs”

     America was still reeling from the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy two days prior when Bob Jackson took his own shot that won a Pulitzer Prize. Dressed in black, Lee Harvey Oswald is the shortest person in the photo. He is handcuffed to a man in a light suit wearing a light brimmed, high-crowned hat that makes him appear to be the tallest man in the photo. The contrast between the two men is more pronounced by their reactions to Jack Ruby’s shot. Oswald is hunched toward the tall man with his right hand covering his heart.  The tall man is leaning away from Ruby. Oswald’s eyes are closed, but his mouth is open. The camera captures Oswald’s split second of recognition of being shot. The tall man looks at Ruby almost scowling, as though trying to assess the situation. Ruby appears slightly twisted and hunched with his back to the camera. One man may be aware of something, but the body language and facial expressions of the rest of the men register no reaction. The photographer has captured the precise second that Ruby shot Oswald. Oswald’s death robbed the American people of  time to direct their feelings of loss and anger at Oswald. The opportunity to know what happened the day the president died was gone. “It’s not a photography contest. It’s about telling some of the biggest stories of the year.” –William Snyder

     It’s impossible to forget the 1973 photo of the young, naked girl running from her napalmed village. The scene is horrific. Five children are running with armed soldiers behind them. A boy of around 10 is leading with terror and fear apparent on his face. The young, naked girl runs behind him. Another older girl holds the hand of a little boy, while another smaller child looks back at the smoke on the horizon. There is more to know about the naked girl’s story. Her village was napalmed by friendly fire by the South Vietnamese. She was burned over 30 percent of her body, but the photographer, Nick Ut, took her to an American hospital where her life was saved. This photo and the brutal photo of an execution in the streets of Saigon challenged Americans’ sensibilities with the stark truth. The war ended that year. “…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.” –Eddie Adams

    “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.?” –John White. John White and Skeeter Hagler’s 1982 photos sing those songs.  

    Hagler’s photos portray the stuff that Country Western music is made of. In one of them, three cowboys are sprawled out in the back of a beat-up pickup truck. The two in the front look like bookends, each with one knee bent to prop the other leg on. The cowboy hat dangling off the toe of a boot brings a smile. Hagler’s photos can speak alone but together as a photo essay with an accompanying story, you feel the spirit of the quintessential old-fashion cowboy. 

     What needs to be said about John White’s photos? Most need no words. They are of recognizable, everyday people. Imagine encountering the man in the white lab coat perched on top of the tall ladder tending to the dinosaur’s teeth. He is there, doing his job and perhaps even calling his dinosaur by name.  

    William Snyder won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Home Hospital for Irrecoverable Children — warehouses for children. The photos reveal crowded rooms and a lack of caregivers.  The children visually suffer from malnutrition. Their faces and postures speak of lost hope and lost laughter. In one picture, the viewer sees a metal bed with the paint chipping off. Its lumpy mattress is too small for the bed, yet a young girl is huddled with her head down in the corner of it. If she moves slightly, she will fall through. Her face can’t be fully seen but her eyes are closed. Her arm is thin. No one is in the bed and two cribs that box her in. It makes the viewer realize that it is probably daytime. Is she sick? Is she sad? Maybe, she doesn’t feel anything anymore. Certainly not what a child should feel. “It’s an honor to be a journalist. If I care about something, I can make half a million people care.”  –Stan Grossfeld

     Two years later, Snyder went from covering subhuman conditions where children barely existed to coverage of the Olympics in Barcelona with Ken Geiger. The pictures now capture laughter and hope where excellence can be realized and rewarded. Unlike the barbed wire of the Romanian orphanage, barriers are broken. The human spirit and body achieve with hope and strong muscles. The euphoric Nigerian team hugs unlike the solitary girl in the bed in Romania who has no one to comfort her. There is joy and relief on the team’s faces and in their body language as they lean in for a group hug.  “Get out ahead of it. Anticipate.” –William Snyder

     When Eddie Adams took that Saigon execution shot, he confessed that he didn’t think anything of it. He had a job to do to chronicle an unpopular war. Only after, when the shot was frozen in time for the world to see, was he also able to see the impact of that photo.

    Photojournalists are compelled to get that one distinguished shot to teach and inform. They hit nerves and touch emotions. 

     Michel du Cille and Carol Guzy won the Pulitzer Prize for their photos of the devastation caused by a 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Columbia. The photos that they published required physical and emotional stamina. They are gut-wrenching pictures. Guzy said, “Sometime I would just rage inside seeing the helplessness. Just to be able to deal with this I would seek out those moments of humanity and courage.” And that’s what photojournalists do: they seek out the stories that must be frozen so that our eyes can really see.