The Pulitzer Prize is an idea; it’s a vote of confidence. Like literature, it exists purely in the mind. —Jeffrey Eugenides
The annual Pulitzer Prizes were awarded yesterday and, as with every year for the past 30, I had just a momentary touch of jealousy. There was a very brief period in my life where I thought I wanted that particular recognition, or at least, the money that goes along with it. The cash would always come in handy, but I no longer truly desire that prize because what one has to photograph to win the damn thing doesn’t suit me particularly well.
If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at the Pulitzer winners in the photography categories for the past ten years. Stop me when you notice a pattern.
2007 Breaking News Photography: Oded Balilty of Associated Press For his powerful photograph of a lone Jewish woman defying Israeli security forces as they remove illegal settlers in the West Bank.
Feature Photography: Renée C. Byer of The Sacramento Bee For her intimate portrayal of a single mother and her young son as he loses his battle with cancer.
2008 Breaking News Photography: Adrees Latif of Reuters For his dramatic photograph of a Japanese videographer, sprawled on the pavement, fatally wounded during a street demonstration in Myanmar.
Feature Photography: Preston Gannaway of Concord (NH) Monitor For her intimate chronicle of a family coping with a parent’s terminal illness.
2009 Breaking News Photography: Patrick Farrell of The Miami Herald For his provocative, impeccably composed images of despair after Hurricane Ike and other lethal storms caused a humanitarian disaster in Haiti.
Feature Photography: Damon Winter of The New York Times For his memorable array of pictures deftly capturing multiple facets of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
2010 Breaking News Photography: Mary Chind of The Des Moines Register For her photograph of the heart-stopping moment when a rescuer dangling in a makeshift harness tries to save a woman trapped in the foaming water beneath a dam.
Feature Photography: Craig F. Walker of The Denver Post For his intimate portrait of a teenager who joins the Army at the height of insurgent violence in Iraq, poignantly searching for meaning and manhood.
2011 Breaking News Photography: Carol Guzy, Nikki Kahn and Ricky Carioti of The Washington Post For their up-close portrait of grief and desperation after a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti.
Feature Photography: Barbara Davidson of Los Angeles Times For her intimate story of innocent victims trapped in the city’s crossfire of deadly gang violence.
2012 Breaking News Photography: Massoud Hossaini of Agence France-Presse For his heartbreaking image of a girl crying in fear after a suicide bomber’s attack at a crowded shrine in Kabul.
Feature Photography: Craig F. Walker of The Denver Post For his compassionate chronicle of an honorably discharged veteran, home from Iraq and struggling with a severe case of post-traumatic stress, images that enable viewers to better grasp a national issue.
2013 Breaking News Photography: Rodrigo Abd, Manu Brabo, Narciso Contreras, Khalil Hamra and Muhammed Muheisen of Associated Press For their compelling coverage of the civil war in Syria, producing memorable images under extreme hazard.
Feature Photography: Javier Manzano of Agence France-Presse For his extraordinary picture, distributed by Agence France-Presse, of two Syrian rebel soldiers tensely guarding their position as beams of light stream through bullet holes in a nearby metal wall.
2014 Breaking News Photography: Tyler Hicks of The New York Times For his compelling pictures that showed skill and bravery in documenting the unfolding terrorist attack at Westgate mall in Kenya.
Feature Photography: Josh Haner of The New York Times For his moving essay on a Boston Marathon bomb blast victim who lost most of both legs and now is painfully rebuilding his life.
2015 Breaking News Photography: Photography Staff of St. Louis Post-Dispatch For powerful images of the despair and anger in Ferguson, MO, stunning photojournalism that served the community while informing the country.
Feature Photography: Daniel Berehulak of The New York Times For his gripping, courageous photographs of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
2016 Breaking News Photography: Mauricio Lima, Sergey Ponomarev, Tyler Hicks and Daniel Etter of The New York TimesFor photographs that captured the resolve of refugees, the perils of their journeys and the struggle of host countries to take them in. Also receiving the prize is the Photography Staff of Thomson Reuters For gripping photographs, each with its own voice, that follow migrant refugees hundreds of miles across uncertain boundaries to unknown destinations.
Feature Photography: Jessica Rinaldi of The Boston Globe: For the raw and revealing photographic story of a boy who strives to find his footing after abuse by those he trusted.
There you have it: ten years worth of Pulitzer prizes for photography. Every one of those entries represents not only amazing photographs, but unbelievable amounts of pain, sacrifice, loss, and incredible risks, including their own lives. One doesn’t get the pictures awarded here without going where no sane person would want to go and taking pictures that, in a perfect world, would never need to be taken.
Therein lies the reason I don’t want a Pulitzer. If I’m winning a Pulitzer prize for photography, it is because someone else has suffered to such an extent that their suffering is visible through the photographs awarded. Of all the pictures on the list above, only the 2009 award for images of President Obama’s first presidential campaign didn’t come with someone facing death, disease, and/or destruction. Yes, we need to see those pictures, and they almost certainly need to be pushed to the front so that we have to visually confront the horrible reality that faces people other than ourselves. We need to know that while we’re complaining about a WiFi signal, Somali refugees are dying by the hundreds in cold ocean waters. We need to see the suffering caused by a pandemic such as Ebola. Without those pictures, we are not able to appreciate the horrible conditions and we are not as inclined to help rectify those problems.
I’ve known Pulitzer prize winners over the years, though, and those people don’t come out of long-term assignments like that without a few scars, both physical and mental. Not all of them are able to continue. Ghosts of their subjects, some of whom have died in the photographer’s arms, haunt them every time they raise a viewfinder to their eye. Nightmares of bombs going off or people in need tugging at their clothes prevent them from being able to sleep. Some winners refer to the prize as a curse for they can never shake those images and the heart-wrenching emotions that go with them.
Maybe my pictures of a little girl sitting on a stump and being silly are not earth-shatteringly important. Maybe my pictures don’t open people’s eyes to horrible conditions around the world. Maybe my pictures are sometimes simplistic portraits of people who hold no other significance than just wanting to have their picture taken. I’m okay with that.
There are photographers whose pictures are frightening, whose pictures bring your worry, and whose pictures maybe even induce some level of guilt. Those are the ones that win Pulitzers. But if my pictures make you smile, give you a reason to feel confident or good about yourself, or bring back a happy memory, then is that not its own prize? And most the time, I’m not at risk of contracting a deadly disease and dying six months later. I’m good with that.
However, should you feel the need to give me $10,000 for my effort, I won’t turn it down.