Pulitzer Prize for Photography – Are You Mentally Able?

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Photo by Kevin Carter

Photo by Kevin Carter

The world famous photograph above was taken by Kevin Carter, a South African photographer, during the Sudan Famine in 1993.  The shot is of a starving Sudanese child who was struggling to get to a food camp located roughly one kilometer away.  Collapsed and huddled to the ground, the child is stalked by a vulture anticipating its next meal.  The shot – originally posted in the New York Times on March 26, 1993 – earned Carter the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.  Despite the fact that this heart breaking image can be credited for world-wide awareness of Africa’s plight, and that it may very well have earned much foreign support, many wrote into the times criticizing Carter for exploting the child’s suffering for personal gain.  His own internal struggles expanded to a level beyond his capacity and Carter commited suicide, not long after earning the award, with a garden hose piping exhaust into the passenger chamber of his car.

Photojournalists are constantly putting themselves in harm’s way, a widely known hazard of the profession.  Some of the most famous photojournalists walked across battlefields, stopped to click the shutter at guerrilla insurgents or even placed themselves in bombing zones or disease outbreaks.  But it’s the mental aspect that – to me – would be the most challenging aspect of the job.  Carter’s fate is certainly one of the most extreme cases.  But many photojournalists have their own inner struggles.

Photo by Stanley J. Foreman

Stanley J. Forman won the prize in 1976 for the shot at right of a woman and child falling from a fire escape during a Boston fire.  The child survived, but the woman, Diana Bryant, was pronounced dead at the scene – unable to be saved by firefighters struggling to reach her in time.  Later, Forman describes hearing the horrifying sound Bryant’s body as it hit the pavement not far from where he stood.  Forman’s photo also had a great impact, earning a great deal of support for better safety regulation in Boston.  But I cannot imagine being at the scene of the incident, let alone documenting it with a camera.  Never mind the reflexes that Foreman needed to have – to be able to capture the two people falling from the fire escape.  But to be able to overcome ones own nerves, the potential second-long hesitation where a thought might enter the mind:  Someone might die here.  It’s not that Foreman was in a position to do anything about it.  He certainly wouldn’t be able to save Bryant’s life (and he’d probably get in the way of emergency responders).  But to be able to function under such circumstances?  I guess one would have to capture first, think upon it later.  It takes a special kind of photographer.

‘Saigon Execution’ by Edward Adams

In another example, Edward T. Adams earned the award in 1961 with this photo titled ‘Saigon Execution’.  I am not aware of any stories or thoughts from Adams concerning the shot.  It is believed that Adams was never in any personal danger, but documenting the incident would leave me with scars.  On the other hand,the reputation of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the officer holding the gun in this photograph, was damaged world wide as the photo became an anti-war campaign icon.  Without context, Loan looks like a horrible man.  In truth, the person being executed, Nguyen Van Lem, was a Viet Cong officer and was personally responsible for dozens of deaths using Guerrilla tactics.  Since the photo captures him out of uniform, stories were woven and Loan – who was considered to be a fair and just General – had his reputation questions.  Adams later appologized to Loan for the outcome.  Adams was quoted as saying:  “The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera.”

If you look back on all of Pulitzer Prize History, it is full of photos illustrating tragedy:  Like the 1947 winner, a photograph taken by Arnold Hardy of a woman jumping to her death from a hotel fire or Hoynh Cong Ut’s 1973 photograph of children (some naked) fleeing from Napalm.  In nearly every case, the photo is famous because of it’s impact on the world or because of the awareness each brought to the public.  But is such an end enough to help one sleep through the night?   Perhaps the senses can be dampened if the goal is to bring such awareness to the world.  But I can imagine the pain and tragedy that must be endured in order to get to that level of detached observation.

Photojournalism is something that I both admire and fear.  I fear the minds that can endure such pain.  Would I even be able to click the shutter?  I’m not so sure – but I would guess that I just don’t have the ability.  What about you?

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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