By David A. Cantor.
Its a document not of the physical world but of the spiritual world.
- Aaron Siskind
|How many people, besides the obvious managers, thought the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography awarded to the Associated Press for its coverage of the presidential scandal was a miscue? If, as recent surveys have indicated, the public was disappointed by media conduct and coverage during the U.S. Presidents debacle, how is it that a panel of judges can award such a prestigious prize for a group of photographs that do little to advance the historic values of documentary photography?
Shouldn't the feature category recognize the type of insightful and creative work that is beyond the day-to-day constraints of developing news stories? In years past, one could be moved by the winning photographs solely on their visual merits.
No one believes traditionalism should limit recognition, but a departure from established acknowledgments shouldn't be squandered on anything less than unique work that helps viewers learn about situations that are not encountered or reported in their workaday lives.
A look back at the winning Pulitzer Feature Photography awards over the last 10 years shows instances of change in the criteria for winning photographs that mitigate the growth of visual communication. Mixed in with work that demonstrates both initiative and creativity is work that might not challenge news photographers to grow and explore.
The 1998 award went to Clarence Williams of The Los Angeles Times for a profound group of images about the life of children whose parents had substance abuse and addiction problems. Viewing them was an uncomfortable experience, almost voyeuristic because of both the intimacy and intensity of a subject not often seen.
In essence, isn't this representative of the work for which the Pulitzer prize for Feature photography should be awarded?
Yet in 1997 we were presented with another controversial award to the APs Alexander Zemlianichenko for his image of Boris Yeltsin dancing to a rock band. (The Board of the Pulitzers moved the image from the Spot News category to Features. ) Obviously, this was not the only take from this event, which in contrast to the 1998 awardee relegates any recognition for singular initiative to the back burner: a cute presidential campaign moment that the judges felt superseded the other finalists work, which included a chronicle of an illegal alien's passage from Mexico to the United States and a terminally ill woman's provisions for her certain demise.
Why does it seem that some of the current leadership in photojournalism is committed to trivializing the real contribution that dedicated work can make to helping people better understand and possibly develop some compassion for the world in which we live? Did anyone learn anything from the halcyon days of the '60s and '70s, when the acceptance of photography as a vibrant combination of art and communication gave the world new ways to look at itself? What of the huge documentary strides of the Photo League in NYC in the 1930s where socially concerned photography, born of the tradition of Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, gave rise to
|the Harlem Document among other works, photographers were invited into lives and made pictures that enabled people to learn about worlds they might not be able to experience firsthand?
If we look at the Feature Pulitzer photo winners from 1996 back to 1994, the listing photo ship gets righted a bit.
In 1996 Stephanie Welsh was rewarded for a vivid group of pictures about female circumcision in Kenya. Again the viewer was left both unsettled by the intimacy of the disturbing images and awed by the photographers intense interaction in a foreign community.
The 1995 award to the AP for its coverage of the genocide in Rwanda distinguishes the wire services true capabilities: bringing images of earth-shattering inhumanity from remote places into the papers of viewers around the world to educate and hopefully prompt some action for relief of those who are suffering. In 1994, the late Kevin Carter was given the award for an image that has become an icon for the tragedy of displacement: a tiny Sudanese girl, weakened from hunger, who collapsed yards away from a vulture. The image brought immediate attention to a festering civil war that has been largely ignored in the Western media for the last 20 years.
In 1993 the feature award went again to the Associated Press for its coverage of the 1992 presidential campaign. Unlike this years award, here photographers had more opportunity for diverse images, rather than the mike stand shots that dominated the scandal coverage. Once again, though, we see a news story defined by scheduled photo opportunities being judged in the feature category. That is not to say that a Feature Prize-winning photograph cannot be produced at a scheduled event.
One need only look at the stunning portrait of Coretta Scott King and her daughter Bernice taken by Moneta Sleet Jr. at the 1968 funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King.
The question is whether or not standards have been changed to accommodate news value perceptions over creative photographic expressions.
The 1992 Feature Pulitzer went to John Kaplan of Block Newspapers for his look at the differences in the lives of seven 21-year-old people in America. Since I am currently in the employ of this company, I will recuse myself from any comments. That moves us back to the 1991 recognition of William Snyder of the "Dallas Morning News" for his searing images of the subhuman living conditions of Romanian orphans. Once again, the awards moved back on track, recognizing creative and journalistic depictions that define evocative photojournalism.
In 1990 the Pulitzer committee awarded the prize to the Detroit Free Presss David C. Turnley for his moving photographs illustrating political change in Eastern Europe and China. Here the Feature category successfully united images from different regions of the world under one heading and rewarded a photographer for producing historic photographs that combined visual strength with relentless initiative. Finally in 1989 another Free Press staffer, Manny Crisostomo, received the Feature award for photographs that gave viewers an eye-opening look at students in a Detroit high school.