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Monday, 07 April 2008


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What a surprise, the winning photographs are of death.

Actually, only one of the winning photos is about death. The Gannaway photo is about love and compassion. It's quite a contrast to the brutality depicted in Latif's photo. I'd say the Pulitzer people struck a nice balance this year.

Ahhh, photography prizes ... rewarding those who celebrate all that's dark, dreary and dismal in the world ... not that I have anything against photographers making the world aware of things that are dark, dreary and dismal, but celebration of the good in the world should get a little air time now and again.

I'm always a bit dismayed by the awarding of the Pulitzer every year. It's not that the images are worthy, but because it's like a competition which the photographer has to submit his/her work to be considered. I say this even though two of my friends have in the past received this award....one of them twice. P'taker

You've a good point, Dennis. "Dark, dreary and dismal" have long been as requisite of characteristics for "news" stories as who, what, when, where, and why. Bad news sells. Nobody buys a paper bearing a headline like, "Terrific Day of Sunshine Seen for Friday". You generally win Pulitzers for reporting on misery and hatred, not for sunshine.

Of course ever fewer people are buying newspapers at all, regardless of headlines.

Several years ago I decided that 50+ years of being a bit of a newshound had been pointless. It had not made be happier. It had not made me a better citizen. It had not made me a better person. So I just started tuning a great deal of news noise out. The planet's still here and I don't feel the loss.

I don't like to be a complainer in these situations, but have to agree with a couple of the early posters in that the major photojournalism awards are too often given to projects featuring death and dying.

Disease, genocide, poverty, starvation, and natural disasters are all very newsworthy events, but they are a very small segment of photojournalism, thus I cannot accept that the best of annual photojournalism comes primarily from these events.

For a look at the trend towards sensationalism one need look no further than the annual NPPA POY awards books. The 1970's and 1980's featured much in the way of local photojournalism, but unfortunately that is no longer the case.

That being said, I cannot argue that the images that win the large prizes are unworthy. My only complaint is that feel the bulk of photojournalism is automatically removed from awards considerations due to non-sensationalistic subject matter, no matter how worthy the images.

OK, did you guys even bother to look at the essay, "Remember Me"??? Yes the subject is depressing (hard to imagine death otherwise), but the photos are all about "celebration of the good in the world." And if there was anything remotely sensationalistic about the essay, it escaped me.

If any of you did happen to look at it and really do feel that way, I'd be interested in hearing why, if you can articulate it, 'cause I got a very, very different hit off the work.

If not, well just maybe you should look before you type?

pax / Ctein

Ctein: "OK, did you guys even bother to look at the essay, "Remember Me"??? Yes the subject is depressing (hard to imagine death otherwise), but the photos are all about "celebration of the good in the world." "

Yes, I did...and no, it's not about "celebration of good in the world". It's a voyeuristic peek into the deeply personal experience of dying a slow, languishing death, something that nearly all of us fear most. Yes, Ms. St. Pierre planned and executed an inspiringly dignified long goodbye that I think most of us admire.

But that's not what sold the paper that carried this series. Not really.

I salute young Preston for doing such a sensitive job on this project. It must certainly have become a tremendous strain on her own emotional health. But the attraction of stories like this is that they offer readers a risk-free peek at their worst fears and strongest hatreds.

That sells looks and wins self-congratulatory awards like the Pulitzer.

I did look through all 19 pictures in the "Remember Me" photo essay. I suppose it could be interpreted as "celebrating a life" or "compassion/love". I interpret it as "coping with loss/dealing with grief". I saw lots of grim faces. Nothing celebratory. Not sensationalistic, either, but the media is obsessed with "poignant" these days. I love watching competitions during the Olympics, but dread NBC's neverending quest for yet another "poignant" moment.

Now, in all fairness, I *am* predisposed when I look at these awards after seeing past PJ awards which seem to follow suit, so I'll readily interpret such pictures negatively in my disappointment that the news media can't find anything good going on on this planet to talk about (and if they do, it's a sidebar and certainly nothing that might win an award).

Ken, thanks for reminding me of the obvious - that since the awards are for news photography it's only reasonable that they choose the type of photos taken for newspapers.

Yahoo has a "Week in Photos" feature that I like to look at when I remember; the photos run the gamut though some of them look more like PR shots than PJ shots. Like many others, I don't read the paper; I get news from the internet and from NPR and find both sources more balanced in scope.

Art should also allow for introspection. To those who feel like the project was a failure for making you feel bad, perhaps you should think about why, instead of blaming the photographer or the Pulitzer committee. That it makes you feel strongly enough to comment speaks directly to its effectiveness.

As someone who was 12 when my father died similarly, I could not disagree more with the notion that, as Ken puts it, "the attraction of stories like this is that they offer readers a risk-free peek at their worst fears and strongest hatreds". Perhaps that's true for you; for me, it's a chance to work through it yet again, to be human along with these people.

That's hardly risk-free, and I doubt it would be for you either, if you really put yourself in the story.

Ron ... I have zero complaints about the photos that were chosen. It's only the lack of balance that never ceases to disappoint me. When I drive to work, I see an old sofa that someone dumped on the side of the road, but but I also see daffodils sprouting, buds appearing on the trees, bluebirds, robins and red-winged blackbirds proclaiming that spring is here. The landscape photographer would show you the daffodils and the morning light coming through the buds on the trees. The photojournalist would shoot the old sofa, then drive past the daffies looking for some broken bottles and discarded kegs. The Pulitzer committee would look at those photos and say "hmmmm, those were taken in New York ? Got any good pictures of Eliot Spitzer ?"

C'mon. Daffodils?

They're PHOTOJOURNALISTS. News people. Storytellers. They take pictures of stuff that's happening now, for newspapers. Stuff that has human interest, that has relevance to life today, to issues that people are dealing with now. The Pulitzers are JOURNALISM AWARDS.

Your comment reminds me of the old episode of "The Odd Couple" when Felix Unger, who is a photographer ("Portraits a specialty") is hired to cover a boxing match, and he comes back with a picture of a fly launching itself off the bell (showing that the bell was ringing) because he wanted to do something different. The audience understands that he hasn't discharged his duty responsibly. A newsie that gets sent out to cover a story and makes like a nature photog would probably get, um, cropped.

It's an appropriateness issue, not a question of a predisposition for showing nasty old sofas instead of flowers. (And note that the old sofa wouldn't make it either, unless it had real relevance.) Nobody doesn't like daffodils, or puppies or sunsets. But this year's daffodil is probably pretty much like last year's daffodil, or next year's. Oddly enough, I think many newspapers might well run a pretty picture of some daffodils, at the proper time of year, for a little sweet touch of spring. But those pictures not going to win any Pulitzers. Because they're not NEWS.

Mike J.

Beyond the obvious (usually it's only tragedies, accidents etc what makes the news, a quiet, uneventful day full of peace is hardly noticeable) there is something missing in your comments: Writing from Spain, I must say I wish we had this type of reporting in our media. That story is about one of you/us, happening next door, and it's important that it gets published even if the main charachters are just ordinary people. Probably people's reaction to it is a consequence of the fears and expectations and mind set of the reader, more than of the content of the story itself.
Last year, thanks to the Pulitzer I discovered a poignant story of a mother with a kid dying from cancer. I found it moving, significant, and socially and politically relevant, even more than stories about Irak or other famous conflicts.
Our papers revolve around the politicians and the famous, and very seldom give any attention to the lives of ordinary people. You are lucky, indeed.

Mike, I suspected I was in trouble with the daffies. My point being, in my life, I see ugly and beautiful things. Why can't PJ photography awards find a worthwhile photo of something positive or inspiring ? (And I personally question whether a given families struggle to cope with the death of a loved one is any more newsworthy than "Spring is coming" - I'd call it a "human interest" story and not especially newsworthy). I looked at Preston Gannaway's other photo stories. There's "Healing Horses". You'd think that if they actually healed the horses, in one out of ten pictures you could find a doctor or an owner who was happy or relieved.
NPR and National Geo seem to maintain some sort of balance. Even NPRs coverage of climate change goes into countries, companies and people doing positive things to prevent certain forecasted ill effects of climate change - we get to hear about the people in the Netherlands building floating houses; Icelands geothermal heat industry that's expanding by consulting with other countries, all presented in a neutral-to-positive way (alongside other stories expressing various no-happy-ending scenarios in some parts of the world). A feature showing some of those floating homes, their construction, life in them, would be interesting, relevant, mostly positive ... it could possibly even showcase better photography than Gannaways. But it wouldn't be heartwrenching or ... to quote Bob Costas on any given night during NBCs Olympics coverage ... "poignant".

Brommer wrote:

"Instead of celebrating our own successes and well being, is not better to try and help others who are suffering?"

I don't see why this should be posed as a choice. I think it's far, far better to do both.

If you'll allow me to backpedal from my kneejerk reaction, I'd appreciate other readers thoughts on a related question. I started thinking, after last nights post, what *would* make a good award-winning "positive" story picture ? Tough to answer. Most of the positive stories I can come up with (and it's easy enough to counter the "Remember Me" feature with say, a story of someone who fought cancer and survived with the support of their family; conjoined twins who were successfully separated through surgery, etc) are of a far less significant scope than the global stories that feature poverty, disease, war, starvation. That hit home this morning as I listened to NPR as they told an in-depth story about increases prices for rice and the impact it's going to have on the worlds poor followed by an upbeat story about a documentary called "Young At Heart" about a chorus of elderly singers "having the time of their lives near the end of their lives". A positive story with greater significance might be two world leaders signing a peace accord ... but would you be able to find a significant photograph from such an event ?

I wondered: do photos of death and despair "tell a story" more so than pictures of celebration ? I don't think so. I don't think pictures tell a story at all; maybe the best ones (thinking of some of the "decisive moment" photos with several things going on at once) can muster up 100 words (forget 1000 words) while most manage far less. Those "short story" photographs stand alone while most serve to illustrate a story. Take the photograph of Kenji Nagai out of context and you've got an illustration; you know a little bit of what's going on and might guess a little more, but you need the words to tell the story. (One strength of the photograph is that if you see it out of context, it makes you want to know more). However, once you've heard/read the story, the photograph immediately brings the story to mind. You can think of any number of Iraq war photos that do the same thing. But two world leaders shaking hands ? I guess it depends on the significance of the event and the recognizability of the people.

And this gets to what I'd love to hear other peoples thoughts about ... I'm willing to believe that there are reasons that PJ photo awards go to "bad news" but what are they ? Is it because most news of the greatest significance is bad news ? Is it because these stories feature iconic images ? Pictures that immediately recall the story ... Are the events themselves comprised of more visually compelling images ? More decisive moments ? A little of all of that ?

"I wondered: do photos of death and despair 'tell a story' more so than pictures of celebration ?"

Maybe you're looking at it the wrong way 'round. Maybe it's that those stories need telling. If you're starving or suffering injustice or your child is dying, you need to get the word out that you need help, succor, relief. You want someone to notice. You hope someone will care.

For better or worse, photographs can give witness and testimony; they can draw notice; they can humanize issues; in some cases they can actually spur others to action--governments, charitable donors, the outside world. They can shame evildoers and possibly even stay their hand. Who, when catastrophe comes, wants to die both unjustly and ALSO anonymously, uncounted, un-cared-for, unnoticed?

Think about it from the perspective of the SUBJECTS of the pictures, rather than from your perspective as a consumer of images, and see if that changes anything.

Mike J.

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