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‘If you can’t do it, get out of the game’

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Three of us went to the Truman Library and Museum in Independence to view the “Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs,” a collection of 139 Pulitzer Prize winning photos on display, over the weekend.

A photographer myself, I was excited to the point of giddiness to view the gripping images. Knowing most of them were captured in the rawest of moments, people enduring life’s slings and arrows, I had braced myself, ready to reflect on personal tragedies that show the brutality of our history.

I was also looking forward to the technical aspect — shadows, lighting, F stop, shutter speed and the blurs of motion in photos that move, the crisp lines of those that don’t. A history of cameras is present too: clunky Graphlex cameras and one-shot flash bulbs. Speed Graphics were the “portable” camera of the time when the Pulitzer prizes were first awarded to photographers. Joe Rosenthal shot the flag raising on Iwo Jima with one. Nat Fein used a Speed Graphic to shoot Babe Ruth’s last at-bat in Yankee Stadium. A dozen other Pulitzer Prize winning images were taken with these dinosaurs. Impressive at the least, not to mention many were taken by photographers looking through their lenses rather than the bullets whizzing by.

The exhibition begins with the first prize-winning photo from 1942, “Battle on the Picket Lines,” by Pete Brooks with the Detroit News. The photo captures the brutality of breaking a picket line, an instant before the downswing of a billy club. These are times I cannot remember. It’s not the history we were shown in classroom history books.

Moving through the display, there are iconic photos that have become so ingrained in American culture we’ve seen them a million times: Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, the Fireman holding the broken corpse of an infant after the bombing in Oklahoma City, the Twin Towers, Columbine … Cambodia … Kent.

There are rare moments of joy, celebration. A family running to greet a prisoner of war who has finally come home. Children playing in front of Cabrini Green in Chicago, their smiles shining brighter than the sun above them casting long shadows on the grounds of Chicago’s notorious housing project.

However, many of the photos rock viewers to the core with raw emotion, pain and suffering we cannot fathom.

“The whole exhibit was riveting,” said one viewer. “The photo of the starving child crawling to a food station will never leave me.”

It never left the keeper of that photo either.

Kevin Carter went to cover the Sudan famine in 1994. Journalists were told to touch no one because of disease. His photo shows a famine stricken child crawling towards an United Nations food camp about a mile away. A vulture stands behind the tiny collapsed body, waiting for the child to die.

Carter said he regretted not picking the child up, against all advice. He didn’t know what happened to the child since he left as soon as the photo was taken. Three months later, his red pickup truck was found parked near a small river where he used to play as a child, a garden hose attached to the exhaust funneled the lethal fumes inside.

“I’m really, really sorry,” said a note left on the passenger seat beneath a knapsack. “The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist.”

The exhibition quotes many of the photographers who were deeply affected by their work. They said they had to keep their focus, both literally and figuratively. There is emotional safety behind the lens. In news, personal feelings have to be kept in check, at least until the assignment is over. One must focus on the craft, the technical aspect, to get the story for the rest of the world.

Perhaps Carter described it best before taking his own life.

“I had to think visually. I am zooming in on a tight shot of the dead guy and a splash of red. Going into his khaki uniform in a pool of blood in the sand. The dead man’s face is slightly gray. You are making a visual here. But inside something is screaming, ‘My God.’ But it is time to work. Deal with the rest later. If you can’t do it, get out of the game.”


–Jessica Machetta


Written by learfield

January 18, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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