The Photographs That Trapped History in a Filmstrip

     Any prospective or aspiring photographers or photojournalists seeking inspiration need look no further than the Pulitzer Prize winning photos themselves. Collectively, they’re practically the professions’ Bible. Moments in time are fleeting, and history seems to be passing us by wherever we look. But tonight, just for the 10 minutes it will take to read this, you may relive life through the eyes of others: other ambitious and brave visionaries who have spent their lives working to inspire people very much like you. Let their triumphs guide you in your own pursuit of the powerful. 

     Consider, first, Iwo Jima: a dormant Japanese volcanic mass surrounded by clear blue oceans. World War II is nearly over and done. The soldiers are exhausted and embedded journalist for Associated Press, Joe Rosenthal, is determined to get a good shot. During wartime, there are no second chances for photographers. Joe struggles up the mountainside, but Marine photographer Louis Lowery informs him that the small makeshift flag has already been raised on the side of the island (and that its raisers have been shot at by the Japanese, now aware of American presence). Lowrey had broken his camera diving for cover.

Iwo Jima.

Rosenthal refused to accept that this iconic moment was now lost, and he continued climbing. Upon reaching the glorious summit, he took notice of a group of men getting ready to raise a second, much larger flag, newly delivered from a massive American battleship – they wanted to see it from the water. This was his chance. His eyesight was poor, but he raised his camera, clicked a single shot and prayed for the best outcome possible. And he got it – not just a beautiful image, but a Pulitzer winner. Ensconced in a clouded grey mass, six soldiers work together in harmony to plant the symbol of victory among the wreckage surrounding them. It flutters triumphantly in the wind, knowingly. 

     Or perhaps Saigon, 1969. A dilapidated city lane lined with desolated buildings sits dormant as a group of South Vietnamese and American soldiers escorts a handcuffed prisoner out onto the street. His worn flannel shirt and shorts are torn, and he looks as though he hasn’t slept in days. His hair is disheveled. He looks as defeated as he feels. Eddie Adams, embedded journalist, immediately reaches for his camera as a Vietnamese man immediately reaches for his pistol. Eddie knows to photograph the prisoner until he’s out of sight, but this prisoner never would get– Eddie snaps several shots quickly. The man aims his pistol at the prisoner’s temple, just five inches from the barrel and pulls the trigger. Eddie snaps the shot just as the bullet is discharged. The frame captures the prisoner’s expression: eyes shut tightly, body leaning away from the gun instinctively, but showing no sign of emotion, as if he has accepted it. The man holding the gun, back to the camera, doesn’t even flinch. His side profile appears indifferent to the murder he’s committing, as if it’s routine. A soldier in the background smiles, looking onward.