How press photographers got Pulitzer-winning pictures

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Sample pages from The Pulitzer Prize Photographs: Capture the Moment
  • Courtesy of Newseum
  • Sample pages from The Pulitzer Prize Photographs: Capture the Moment

Like many professionals, journalists have a clearer understanding of their own virtues than the public does. Press photographers, for instance, tend to be quick-witted and daring, yet the laity have a way of dismissing them as pushy voyeurs. Movies like to show photographers as a rabid mob—the gauntlet that must be run by decent people falsely accused.

The other day I arrived early at the dentist and rooted around the waiting room for a distraction. I spotted a large picture book perfect for the task: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs: Capture the Moment, published by the Newseum in Washington DC.

I leafed through the pages of Pulitzer-garnering photos and scanned the text in which the photographers discussed their tradecraft. Guess what! They employed stealth, they concealed information, they defied invitations to get lost. The AP photo staff collectively won a Pulitzer in 1999 for shooting the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky melodrama. One photographer relentlessly staked out places where Lewinsky might show up. "No one knew who she was and what she looked like," he recalled. "It became a cat-and-mouse game." An outsider might call that stalking, a willingness to play the obsessive jerk. Finally the cat caught the mouse.

The next year a Washington Post team were honored for their photos of ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo. "You're here. You finally came," cried a man in a burned-out house who mistook a Post photographer for a war crimes investigator; he was holding body parts of relatives the Serbs torched. The photographer snapped away—if he bothered to correct the misunderstanding, the book doesn't mention it.

In 2005 an AP photographer benefited from another misunderstanding. "Insurgents in Baghdad thought Muhammed Muheisen worked for a local Arabic newspaper when he photographed an Iraqi man celebrating atop a burning U.S. Humvee," the book tells us. "'If they knew that I worked for AP, they would have killed me for being a spy,' he said."

The Denver Post's Anthony Suau was visiting a military cemetery on Memorial Day in 1983. He spotted a new widow sitting in the grass, hugging the tombstone of her dead husband. His response? "I positioned myself with a longer lens. . . . I made about six frames."

William Gallagher of the Flint Journal snapped the famous 1952 photo of Adlai Stevenson campaigning for president, a hole in the sole of his right shoe. "As I was kneeling there," said Gallagher, who'd been squatting in front of Stevenson, "he started going over the notes of his speech and casually crossed his legs. This brought the shoe up right in front of me. I couldn't miss seeing the hole. As quietly as I could, I pre-focused my camera and set it on the floor at arm's length. I had to spot the camera by guesswork because it was impossible for me to lie on the floor."

And stealth won a Pulitzer for the AP's Paul Vathis in 1962. President Kennedy had invited former president Eisenhower to Camp David in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and Vathis was part of the press herd. The two presidents posed for the usual pictures and then went off together. Vathis said he noticed them "all by themselves, their heads bowed, walking up the path. They looked so lonely."

So Vathis squeezed off two quick shots between the legs of a Secret Service agent, even though press secretary Pierre Salinger had said no more pictures. Then he lied. Vathis would remember, "Pierre said, 'I told you guys to leave this alone,' and I said, 'I'm just changing my film.'"

The AP's Greg Marinovich came across a gunfight between hostile factions in Soweto, South Africa, in 1990. A Zulu man was stoned, stabbed, and set on fire. His attackers ordered Marinovich to stop taking pictures. "I'll stop taking pictures when you stop killing him," Marinovich replied.

It was 1982, Israel had invaded Lebanon, and the AP's Bill Foley headed for a Palestinian refugee camp run by a Christian militia. They told him, "Take a hike if you don't want to get your head blown off." So Foley retreated; but later he returned to the camp, discovering it was now unguarded because everybody inside was dead. The militia had killed the prisoners by the hundreds.

Violence ravaged Somalia in 1993 and four journalists had already been beaten to death when gunmen shot down an American helicopter. Paul Watson of the Toronto Star shot a few frames of a mob dragging the body of an American soldier through the streets. Finally, according to Watson, "my bodyguard forced me back into the car because he had heard threats from the crowd."

The United Auto Workers had just called a strike at the Ford plant in Detroit in 1941. Outside the gates, emotions ran high. Milton Brooks of the Detroit News spotted pickets attacking a man with fists and clubs. "I took the picture quickly, hid the camera under my coat and ducked into the crowd," said Watson. "A lot of people would have liked to wreck that picture."

The house in Miami's Little Havana hid six-year-old Elian Gonzalez, pawn in a 2000 custody battle between relatives in Miami and his father in Cuba. Outside was Alan Diaz of the AP. The relatives had given him clear instructions: stay on the far side of the backyard fence, and don't speak to Elian. But when federal agents armed with submachine guns stormed the house and carried off the boy Diaz jumped the fence and ran inside, shooting pictures and telling little Elian to stay calm.

I know what you're thinking: it's one thing to defy common decency and another to defy blood-drunk Somali gunmen. It sure is. What I'm saying here is that photography is the job of witness and photographers have a sense of entitlement sufficient to get the job done—just as all professions do. In the right light we all shine, and The Pulitzer Prize Photographs is the right light. We all see ourselves in the right light more easily than anyone else does.

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