Perspectives: Pure Speculation & Springtime Leaks, Who's Going To Win The Pulitzers?

Apr 11, 2006

Perspectives label

 

 

By Donald R. Winslow

AUSTIN, TX – It’s that time of year again: Final Four basketball is done, the ground along the Tidal Basin and the Potomac River is covered with dying cherry blossom petals, taxes are due in a few days, and yet it’s way too early to start talking about favorite Kentucky Derby horses or pole contenders for the Indianapolis 500. So there’s not much left to cluck and spar about around the darkroom (darkroom?) these days other than that timeworn spring classic, the ritual round of wild guesses and shots-in-the-dark about who’s going to win this year’s Pulitzer Prizes for photography come April 17.

Unlike certain offices in the West Wing where leaking secrets to reporters seems to be the order of the day, the solemnly-sworn members of the Pulitzer Board, who didn’t even have to affirm an oath on the Constitution, won’t tell us a dang thing. Nothing. Not one leak. Nary a decent hint. They mutter something about aspiring to a higher standard, something about ethics, before quickly claiming, “I have to take this call, really. I’m sorry.” Can it be that fear of the wrath of Columbia University, the administrators of the Pulitzer Prizes, now exceeds the level of fear some elected government officials have (or don’t have) for one certain Harvard-grad special prosecutor and a shotgun-toting Vice President?

Maybe they’re just afraid they’ll all end up on Page Six.

Now I ask you, what’s journalism come to when you can’t even get advanced word on who’s going to be celebrating and drinking champagne next Monday night and – possibly – suggesting somewhat blatantly, if not obnoxiously, to their bosses that now might be the perfect time for that long-overdue raise?

And when did you ever think you’d see the day when a bunch of journalists picking winners in a contest could lay claim to having a higher ethical standard than the elected government officials populating Pennsylvania Avenue?

Well, okay, maybe that last bit is going too far. But I’ll bet Bob Woodward knows the names of at least a couple of the photo finalists, even if he won’t tell Robert Novak until Sunday night. Or is it Novak who won’t tell Woodward? I get so confused. Anyway, Karl Rove’s probably known for weeks. But he won’t return my calls either.

 

Just when I was about to give up all hope and had started thinking that some new and strange ethical phenomenon had sneaked into the mainstream media’s good-old-boy network of contest jurors, Pulitzer Board members, and returning contestants – that maybe this year we really wouldn’t know who was going to win until Monday afternoon – someone came through for the sake of journalism and in a long-standing tradition “leaked” a list of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalists after all.

In a “senior moment” I had forgotten one thing: “They” usually wait until about a week before the winners are announced to “leak” the list to a magazine that’s very popular with newspaper editors and publishers. This way assignment editors can be put on fair notice, to rally the troops to cover the surprised winners getting the phone call. And reservations can be made well in advance for catering, and for decent restaurants where a large group of possibly inebriated celebrants can dine en masse on a well-oiled expense account, late into a Monday night. One must take these important things into consideration. I mean, it’s a Pulitzer that’s being celebrated – everyone who’s important in the newsroom needs to be back in town for this party.

While a high school journalism student could probably safely guess that The Times-Picayune in New Orleans will win some kind of Pulitzer Prize (Public Service, Breaking News, Explanatory Reporting, Editorial Writing), and The New York Times will win their usual handful of honors for something or the other, the two categories that obviously interest me the most are the Spot News and Feature Photography awards.

“The Leak” puts the conventional wisdom for the Spot News Photography prize on the Los Angeles Times (for coverage of the Gaza Strip pullout by Carolyn Cole and Brian Vander Brug), or The Dallas Morning News (for Katrina coverage), or the Associated Press (for Katrina coverage). Part two of the surreptitious list, the Feature Photography prize, has the Los Angeles Times as a contender again (for coverage of Catholic priests in Alaska by Damon Winter), or the Rocky Mountain News (for “Final Salute” by Todd Heisler), or the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (for “Holocaust Survivors” by photographer Mike Stocker).

Not A News Flash: All of these are essays, or collections, or portfolios. Again.

 

Where’s the single image, the solitary Pulitzer Prize-winning moment? The icon that makes a viewer gasp? The one picture that will always be the picture of that photographer’s lifetime? Maybe “The Leak” is wrong; maybe there’s a single image that’s going to win a Pulitzer Prize next week. But for the past few years, at least, “The Leak” has been pretty accurate about the list of finalists. The Pulitzer Board can always disregard the judges’ recommendations for the finalists and pick whatever they want to win, a single image instead of the whole essay, but what are the odds of that happening these days?

Sig Gissler has been administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes since 2002. He’s the former editor of The Milwaukee Journal. During his 25 years with the newspaper he served as reporter, editorial page editor, and associate editor before becoming editor in 1985, and he’s also a former Pulitzer Prize juror. He’s seen a lot of good journalism in his days. So I asked Gissler, “What’s become of the single image Pulitzer?”

“The jury responds to what’s submitted,” he told me today from the midst of “the Pulitzer frenzy” in New York. “There’s nothing to prevent the single image from capturing the day. I don’t think there’s any bias against the single image. I think most of the entries now are packages of photographs, and the jurors have an open-minded consideration of the possibility (of pulling out a single picture). The jurors deal with what’s entered. It’s not their mission to edit the entry or to repackage the submissions. The Pulitzer Board has a more panoramic view of everything that’s entered and may do that, but not the jurors.”

 

When I was a photojournalism student in Bloomington, IN, I had no idea that this was the way it worked behind the Pulitzer curtain. I was just a high school, then college, student who studied the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs every spring. A lot seems to have changed since then about the contest and what kind of photographs win.

I grew up thinking that the Pulitzer Prize was for that one incredible, can’t-believe-it, unforgettable picture of a moment that was unlike any moment we’d ever seen before, a single picture that’s burned into photography’s collective memory forever, like the Hindenburg exploding on the mast at Lakehurst; or YA Tittle, bloodied and brought to his knees; or the American flag going up over Iwo Jima; or a mother and child plummeting from the sky under their collapsed fire escape falling from a burning Boston house.

Single, iconic, unforgettable moments that were branded into my brain. But that’s not so much the case these days. Lately the photography Pulitzer Prizes have been going to essays, not singles, or to large portfolios or collections of images shot by an entire staff, not even taken entirely by one photographer.

The last single image to win the Pulitzer Prize was in 2001, when Alan Diaz photographed armed Federal agents seizing the Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez from his relatives’ Miami home. Before that, the previous winning single image was in 1997 by Annie Wells for a dramatic floodwater rescue. And before that, the last winning single image was in 1996 by Charles Porter, a utility company employee and freelancer who photographed an Oklahoma City firefighter carrying the body of a one-year-old child, one of the bombing victims at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, who shot the Pulitzer Prize-winning picture on a camera that he kept in his work vehicle.

Then you have to go back to 1994 to find solos, when two single images won the Pulitzers for Spot News and Feature in the same year: Paul Watson’s photograph of an American soldier’s mutilated body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by a mob of jeering Somalis won News, and Kevin Carter’s photograph of a starving Sudanese girl who collapsed on her way to a feeding center (while a vulture lurked nearby in the scene) won Feature.

The winners before and after these singles were all essays, portfolios, or collections – some by one photographer, like Carol Guzy or William Snyder, but most of them the result of a group effort.

I started to wonder why this might be. Then I started thinking about the raw strength of these single moments, how brutal and savage some of these moments are, about the raw emotions most viewers experience just looking at these singles. Maybe that’s what the judges are shying away from: By going with essays and portfolios now instead of that one picture that delivers a roundhouse TKO punch, they’re diluting the power of the single image, sidestepping the controversy and the messy horror that can be ascribed to just one picture.

But that’s not what a former Pulitzer judge says about how the process works. “It’s very difficult to find a single image that will overcome a story, an essay, a collection of pictures. Very difficult,” says two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Michel duCille of The Washington Post. He’s also served as a Pulitzer judge.

“I judged the Pulitzer photos in March 2003 (the year right after 9/11) and March 2004. Previously I did it in 1991 and 1992. In the four times that I’ve been a judge, we were always conscious of looking for the single image. The tradition with the Pulitzer is the single image. We pushed ourselves to look for the single image, and Larry Price said to us that he felt that we should ‘work harder’ to find a single image. So we pulled all of them out that we felt were even worthy of being considered. But afterwards, we felt that the singles just didn’t measure up to the body of work that was on the table; it’s a single image that’s up against a collection of pictures that are just bam, bam, bam, strong. So it’s not as easy as it sounds to find the single image that can compete against an essay that’s one strong picture after another.”

 

Trust me, there are plenty of single images out there from this last year that could have been nominated as Pulitzer finalists, pictures that would have stood the test of time and any comparison to other Pulitzer singles – pictures from the war, pictures from Katrina, pictures from the news.

There’s Mohamed Azakir’s picture of a car bombing in Beirut with a man shouting for help over a charred blast victim, which is as dramatic as any news picture I’ve ever seen. There’s Chris Hondros’s picture of a small, blood-spattered Iraqi girl screaming in terror, illuminated by the shaft of light from a flashlight on an American soldier’s rifle, mere moments after troops gunned down her entire family and killed her parents for failing to stop their family car as commanded in Tal Afar.

And there are any number of pictures by Eric Gay of the Associated Press from his coverage of Hurricane Katrina, but specifically the one of Evelyn Turner crying alongside the body of her cancer-riddled common-law husband, Xavier Bowie, after he ran out of bottled oxygen and died, his body wrapped in a sheet and floated down the street on a plank of wood as she tried to bring him to help.

There are single images within Todd Heisler’s “Final Salute” essay that can stand alone as Pulitzer winners: Marines inside the cargo hold of a domestic airliner unloading the flag-draped casket of a fellow Marine killed in Iraq as the faces of passengers fill the row of windows overhead, waiting respectfully to see the honor guard carry the fallen hero away; the soldier’s widow, not wanting to leave his side the night before he’s to be buried, sleeping on a mattress on the floor of the funeral home next to his casket all night as a Marine stands at attention by the coffin, the scene illuminated by a small portable TV on the floor next to her.

There’s Finbarr O’Reilly’s picture (which won World Press Photo of the Year) of the tiny, emaciated fingers of a child touching her mother’s lips at an emergency feeding center in Tahoua, Niger, where famine and drought are the daily killers. And there’s Edmond Terakopian’s picture of a stoic survivor of an underground terrorist bomb attack in the London Tube in July, bloodstained but still “British proper” with his newspaper tucked under his arm and necktie straight. And don’t forget Ben Curtis’s picture of a soldier kicking a protester in the head during street violence that surrounded a presidential election in Togo.

Let’s face it: there were a LOT of single images last year that are worthy of a Pulitzer Prize for photography. So is “The Leak” correct again, that this year’s finalists are all essays and collections and portfolios again? Sure, these pictures are good work, some of them even great, as good as or even better than those that have won in recent years. But what about The Single Image Pulitzer Prize Photograph? Where is it?

 

Is this possibly a failure on the part of editors who enter the contest? Are they trying to hedge their bets by submitting twenty pictures in competition instead of narrowing it down and picking just one? Are they playing it safe by trying to bet the entire field instead of picking one horse and putting all their hopes on it? Or has spine just devolved from what it takes to be the type of editor who can pick that one image and say: “Here. This is it. Get rid of the others.” Is this trend toward essays and collections the physical evidence of “editing by committee” instead of editing by an editor?

Maybe there’s still time this year. Maybe someone up at Columbia on the Pulitzer Board will pause for a moment and look at these finalists and think about the trend that the Pulitzer Prizes have established over the last few years by awarding essays and groups of pictures and put on the brakes. Maybe a member of the Pulitzer Board will reach in and pull out ONE image from the twenty or so and say: “Here. This is it. THIS is a Pulitzer Prize-winning moment. Get rid of the others.”

Wouldn’t that be a breath of fresh air?

As my friend Jerry Gay, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for a picture of four firefighters, exhausted and resting on the ground after battling an early-morning house fire, says, “There’s a spiritual quality about Pulitzers that not everyone sees or comprehends. And there is a time and place for everything in a photojournalist’s life, even a Pulitzer.”

 

Winslow, an editor and photojournalist for thirty years, is editor of NPPA's News Photographer magazine.