Stanley Forman, who won a Pulitzer Prize in the 1970s for his image “Boston Fire,” said, “You can always say, ‘I want to make a Pulitzer.’ But I don’t think you can go out and hunt and say, ‘I have to make a Pulitzer Prize winner today.’” Yet that’s exactly what these photographers wake up every day to do. Whether the Pulitzer is specifically on their minds or not, capturing that moment in history is how many have chosen to dedicate their lives. Whether that moment be priceless to American history, world history or the neighbor’s family album–capturing a moment of pure joy or raw sadness can bring the whole world to a single second of unified awe. That is what these Pulitzer winning photographers do–capture heart-wrenching, tear-jerking or joy-inducing moments that otherwise might have been missed or under appreciated. These award-winning photos are the strongest examples of once-in-a-lifetime moment that induce a necessary conversation with a sense of urgency around its topic matter.
Possibly in one of America’s most iconic photos, “Iwo Jima,” by Joe Rosenthal, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1945. Here we see several soldiers who are physically exhausted and surrounded by debris rushing to hold up the American flag in the middle of chaos. During this time, World War II was taking a toll on families across the country. The depiction of these soldiers instilled a new sense of patriotism in Americans that boosted morale for those at home and overseas. Assisting in unification and patriotism, this image’s impact made a lasting impression and has been reenacted in several films.
By the 1950s, America was facing a question regarding police effectiveness and popularity of the profession was lacking. While O.W. Wilson, who had recently returned from World War II, made a huge impact on the social issues surrounding the professionalism of the police, positive press was still lacking for our officers in blue. “The Parade,” published by William Beall in 1958, did just that. In a black-and-white image, a local police officer is bent down at the waist to speak with a small, happy child, nervously fidgeting with his hands, who is eager for his ear. The parade onlookers in the background are all watching for the next float, except for an older man, presumably related to the child, who is watching the interaction with amusement. The interaction was sweet and heartwarming for many viewers and reinforced a positive impression of police as a whole.
In 1969, Eddie Adams was able to capture the “Saigon Execution.” Vietnam was in full swing, and the brutality and violence of American allies was questionable. In a clear roadway there were soldiers who were walking a prisoner to confinement, when a general pulls out a gun. The soldiers who were holding this man all backed away and we see the man holding the gun up straight to the prisoner’s temple. This man knows his life is over, and it’s written all over his face. We see the last moment of sheer terror as the trigger was being pulled. This image sparked controversy throughout the country and initiated uncomfortable conversations around the war and who America was allying with. The photographer later regretted this photograph, saying that it only showed half the story.
On the home front, in the 1970s, “Boston Fire” was captured by Stanley Forman. This is a black-and-white image depicting a woman and her god-child falling from a steel rung balcony that they had been standing on with a local fire rescue team member that collapsed due to the damage done to the structural integrity by the fire. The mother fell fastest, with the young child falling just a split second after. You can almost hear the girl’s scream falling from the brick building. This image sparked a conversation within municipalities across the country regarding the prevention of similar accidents and resulted in more stringent fire safety codes surrounding fire escapes.
“Columbia Mudslide” won a Pulitzer in 1986 for Michel DuCille and Carol Guzy. In this image you see a young girl with bloodshot eyes with just her head above the mud. She has sadness and exhaustion all over her face. There is a wooden barrier behind her. The girl depicted in the photograph did not make it. The photographer, 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.” The pure devastation after the volcano erupted was caught in this one photo, which showcased the desperation of the people affected by this natural disaster throughout the world and made its viewers really feel for those lost.
John White once said, “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?” In 1997, Annie Wells was able to tell two of those stories when she showcased “Water Rescue.” A brave local emergency rescue member holds himself up using a slim branch while leaning in to reach a young teen girl. The bravery of this man is unmatchable. This girl was struggling to stay above rushing water so thick with debris it almost appears solid. Annie was able to snap the photo in the moment that built anticipation whether he was able to save her.
The winners of the Pulitzer, those listed above and otherwise, are truly heroes. They raise awareness for issues that others might not be able to relate to without actually seeing it themselves. Photojournalism is not for the fainthearted. These heart-wrenching scenarios are unavoidable, but being the person who can be there, focus on capturing the moment while their life is at risk is unbelievable.