Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photos and The Stories They Tell
A picture is worth a thousand words
So the saying goes. And since 1942 the Pulitzer Prize has spotlighted one photo each year that tells a powerful story. Further investigation reveals that many of these prize-winning shots have amazing stories behind them. Those stories are often not so well-known.
Probably the most recognizable picture in the world is this one of a Vietnamese girl running away after being showered with napalm during the Vietnam War. AP photographer Nick Ut got this shot on June 8, 1972 after the bombing of Trang Bang, a village near Saigon. The South Vietnamese pilot thought he was hitting enemy troops. The victims turned out to be civilians leaving a temple.
Ut's picture won the World Press Photo of the Year for 1972 and the Pulitzer. The little girl, nine year-old Kim Phuc said later in life, "I realized that if I couldn't escape that picture, I wanted to go back to work with that picture for peace. And that is my choice." In 1994, UNESCO made her a Goodwill Ambassador for Peace. In 1997, the first Kim Phuc Foundation was founded in the US for the purpose of helping child victims of war. It eventually became an international organization dedicated to meeting the medical and psychological needs of the youngest casualties of the world's conflicts. "The Girl in the Picture" was published in 1999, in which Denise Chong told the story of Kim's amazing life.
Kent State - May 4, 1970
Vecchio and Filo at Kent State 2009
Journalism Undergrad's Beginner's Luck
The rookie baseball player hits a grand slam his first big league at-bat.
The long-odds filly comes from the back of the pack to win The Derby.
The unknown starlet gets the Academy Award for her first film.
Yes, these things happen. But not often.
On May 4, 1970, John Paul Filo, a 22 year-old photojournalism major at Kent State University in Ohio, was drawn outside a campus photo lab when he heard 67 shots in 13 seconds. Instinctively he started snapping pictures from his vantage point. One of those was of 14-year-old Florida runaway Mary Vecchio screaming over the body of Jeffrey Miller. Miller was one of four students killed that day by National Guard troops. Nine others were seriously injured.
Akron Mayor LeRoy Satrom called out the National Guard after two days of demonstrations that resulted in broken windows and the burning of an old ROTC building. The recent U.S. invasion of Cambodia sparked protests across the country- particularly on college campuses. At Kent State, an initially peaceful rally of protesters was told to disperse. The directive was met with shouting and rock throwing as the troops began to march across the area to divide the crowd. This action drove the protesters up a hill and down onto an adjoining, fenced, sports field. Within about 10 minutes the Guardsmen found themselves faced with an increasingly angry crowd in a confined space. Retracing their steps, the troops retreated up the hill. When they reached the top, 28 of the more than 70 Guardsmen turned suddenly and shot into the crowd while others shot into the air.
Filo's shots won him the 1970 Pulitzer.
Filo admitted when one of the live rounds blasted into a pillar next to him, he put down his camera and started to run. But he stopped. "Where are you going?" I said to myself, "This is why you are here!"
Today Filo works for CBS with a resume that includes the Associated Press, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Baltimore Evening Sun, and Newsweek Magazine.
Oklahoma City Bombing 1995
Charles Porter won the Pulitzer Prize for this photograph of firefighter Chris Fields holding Baylee Almon, an infant who would within the hour be one of the 168 victims of the Oklahoma City Bombing, .He was an amateur photographer who took his film to the local Walmart to be developed. (Yes, that is what people actually did before the advent of cell phones and the Internet.) At a friend's urging, Porter submitted the picture to the Associated Press thinking a newspaper or two might run it. Instead, it was the picture seen around the world.
Unbeknown to Porter, he wasn't the only person taking pictures at the same time he was that day. Lester Larue, a safety coordinator for the Oklahoma Natural Gas Company, got a very similar shot of the firefighter and the baby. But he took his picture with a company camera thinking the blast was a gas explosion. He took his film to a one-hour photo shop. The clerk called him to let him know Newsweek Magazine wanted to buy his pictures for $14,000. It looked like there were plenty of other offers for his pictures also.
In the meantime, the baby's mother, Almon Kok, was on television condemning anyone who might make money off the loss of her daughter. At that point, Larue's bosses at the gas company got involved. They were not happy with the negative publicity. They also pointed out that the pictures had been taken with the company camera, making the pictures company property. Larue was given two options. Turn over the money he'd been paid for the pictures or leave the company. He left. Still, it was Porter who won the Pulitzer.
The Sailor and His Bride
Alfred Eisenstaedt's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of this kiss between a sailor and a nurse became the iconic symbol of the end of World War II. Victory in Japan! It was over.
What began, however, was a mystery that would take decades to solve. The problem? Eisenstaedt broke one of the fundamental rules in photojournalism. He failed to get the names of the people he'd photographed. At my little weekly newspaper, this mistake would get me fired. At Life Magazine in 1945, it got the photographer a Pulitzer.
Many people over the years have come forward claiming to be either the kissing sailor or the kissed nurse. Who would have thought, even though Life buried it on page 27, that this picture taken in Times Square on August 14, 1945, would grab the attention of the celebrating world?
The mystery finally got solved by means of forensic experts and a lawsuit. Life magazine was prompted to prove the two identities when George Mendonsa sued them in 1995. Life had just announced they would begin selling copies of the famous picture. George knew he was the kissing sailor when he first saw the picture in 1980. How was he so sure? There was a woman in the background. It was his future wife, Rita Petry.
Greta Zimmer recognized herself also. Her husband was convinced when he saw the angle of the nurse's left thumb. He swore whenever Greta became tense, her arm stiffened up and her thumb stuck out just like the woman in the picture. The photo had another special significance for Greta. After WWII came to an end, she learned her parents, who hadn't made it out of Austria as she and her sisters had, died in the camps. The fact that she became a symbol of victory was bittersweet.
George was kissing Greta on August 14 because he mistook her for a Navy nurse. Actually she was a dental hygienist on a break from work. George was on his first date with his future bride. But when the movie they were watching at Radio City was cut short by the announcement of the end of the war, they burst into Times Square with the rest of the gone-crazy-with-joy citizens of New York City. The sight of a nurse, any nurse, reminded George of the angels of mercy he'd observed during his service. Without a thought in his head, he grabbed her and laid one on her. Then he went back to his date and Greta went back to work.
Donating their services in order to be a part of the history of the famous photo, Mitsubishi Electric Research Lab in 1995 verified George and Greta were indeed the people in the picture. In June 2012 “The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II” by Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi was published.
NOTE: Greta Zimmer Friedman, passed away in September 2016 at the age of 92.
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Video by anoop KN
Resources used in this hub:
The Associated Press
New York Post
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