True Stories Behind Award Winning Photographs

Photographs present a sneak-peek into history for forthcoming generations. You can call them provocative glimpses into the lives of people and eras that have gone by. The fact that many of us cannot ignore is that every photo has a story to tell. All we need to do is dig deep and explore it because the background stories of some pathbreaking photographs can reveal a lot than we can realize by mere looking at the photo. There’s a reason that some photographs have won Pulitzer Prizes. Some photographs garnered international attention and acclaim for their ability to highlight critical historical events, encapsulate visceral reactions, and make us notice unrealized truths.

Every year, we honor Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs mainly due to their intensity, raw emotion, and incredible capacity to provide us an insight into the society of the era they represent. Their backstories add multiple layers of insight into the moment that inspired that image. We guarantee that this review of a few of such remarkable, prize-winning photographs will transport you to that particular time when that event occurred and send you on an emotional roller coaster from grief and remorse to jubilation and inspiration.

1980: ‘Firing Squad in Iran’

Photo: Unknown

Firing Squad in Iran was initially credited to an unidentified photographer. It was the first and only picture that received a Pulitzer Prize without having the name of its contributor. The photograph shows 11 Kurdish males getting shot at an airfield in Sanandaj, Kurdistan, as they were considered “counter-revolutionaries.” All the men underwent a speedy trial and were later executed by Ayatollah Khomeini’s supporters.

In 1979, the Shah of Iran was overthrown by Khomeini, and he installed a theocracy after coming to power. Khomeini was an anti-western and traditionalist leader. He converted Iran into a repressive and repressive regime. International media was forbidden from staying in Iran. 

So, when this photo was published in Ettela’at, an Iranian newspaper, the name of its photographer was deliberately not announced for safety purposes. Government authorities forced the newspaper to provide the name of the photographer, but the publication refused. When the United Press International distributed this photo, it also didn’t reveal the contributor’s name. 

While awarding this photo the Pulitzer Prize, the jurors said it was “probably the single most important photograph of 1979. It is not only a picture of enduring and memorable quality but also has the power to shape the viewer’s feeling about a compelling international crisis.”

However, decades later, in 2016, the name of the person who took this award-winning photo was revealed, with his consent. It was Jahangir Ramzi from Tehran. At the time this photo was captured, Ramzi worked for Ettela’at. Wall Street Journal’s Josh Prager ultimately tracked him down. All these years, Ramzi had kept the evidence of his associated with the photo secretly hidden in his home as he feared reprisal. 

After his name came to light, the Pulitzer Prize Board held a ceremony to honor his contribution. While receiving the award for spot photography, Ramzi met the sister of one of the executed males. Recalling this emotional meeting, the sister said that she couldn’t control herself and met the person who was the last individual to see her brother moments before his death.

1978: ‘Three Photographs from Guerrilla Areas in Rhodesia’

Photo: J. Ross Baughman / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

photographer J. Ross Baughman was covering the Rhodesian Bush Warn for the Associated Press in 1977. Baughman took a series of controversial photos on this assignment, which earned him the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in 1978. Rhodesia is now known as Zimbabwe. Reportedly, Baughman went to Rhodesia with the forces deployed by the White government, as they desperately wanted to weed out the anti-government guerillas. 

Recalling that time, Baughman revealed that “they forced all the men in one village to line up in push-up stance on the ground… for 45 minutes.” He noted that they regularly carried out beatings and executions to threaten the villagers so that they give up guerillas but to no avail. Although the Rhodesian government had confiscated a large chunk of Baughman’s film, he somehow managed to save three rolls. When they were published, the authenticity of his work and his overall role in the incident he had captured was criticized.

However, he stood by his work and could convince the Pulitzer Prize Board to look at these pictures from another perspective. They later claimed that the photos depicted “one part of a nasty war – the plight of Black prisoners captured by the Rhodesian Army.”  Baughman was just 23-yeard-old when he received the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. He became the youngest individual ever to receive the Pulitzer. 

1974: ‘Burst of Joy’

Photo: by Slava “Sal” Veder, 1973. Minnesota Historical Society

Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm’s reunion with his family was immortalized by photographer Slava ‘Sal’ Vedder, who took this photo in March 1973. Col. Stirm was an Air Force fighter pilot. He was taken down over North Vietnam in 1967 and imprisoned. The moment the former POW set foot on Travis Air Force Base, California, his daughter Lorrie ran to embrace him, followed by her three siblings, Roger, Robert Jr., and Cynthia, and their mother, Loretta. 

Talking about that particular moment when Lorrie embraced her father, she said, “I just wanted to get to Dad as fast as I could… We didn’t know if he would ever come home… That moment was all our prayers answered, all our wishes come true.” 

Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm

Slava Veder was part of the large team of journalists who awaited Stirm. They all felt the energy and the raw emotion that filled the air that day. This energy was aptly captured and depicted by Vedder through her photo. This image became a symbol of healing and hope in the aftermath of a war that the U.S. had lost. In 1974, Burst of Joy was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in the feature photography category.

This photo also has a disturbing backstory, apart from the fact that Stirm was a prisoner of war (POW). Several days before arriving in the United States, Stirm had received a letter from Loretta indicating that their marriage wasn’t working. The couple tried to reconcile but divorced after a few months. Sometime later, Stirm opened up and shared his feelings about this photo.

“I have several copies of the photo, but I don’t display it in the house… I was very pleased to see my children – I loved them all and still do, and I know they had a difficult time – but there was a lot to deal with… In some ways, it’s hypocritical, because my former wife had abandoned the marriage within a year or so…”

Slava “Sal” Veder

1970: ‘Campus Guns’

Photo: Steve Starr / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

It was the April of 1969 when a group of students, who were the members of the Afro-American Society, took over Willard Straight Hall on Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, campus. The students were protesting against inequality and prejudice that had become a norm at Cornell back then. They demanded a separate college for black students. 

Steve Starr took this photograph soon after he arrived on the scene. He was taken aback after seeing a student present inside the campus building holding a rifle. Starr spent the next 34 hours trying to cover the story while the university’s P.R. team tried their best to keep the media people at bay.  After a thrilling 36-hour standoff, the armed students left the building, and Starr took this Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph. Despite that the students were armed, the protest was a peaceful one. However, what the jurors at the Pulitzer Prize board praised the most was the fact that this photo “marked one of the main turning points in a year of campus turmoil… The picture had a major impact on later events because it was the first time that campus protesters were openly armed.” Starr won the spot-breaking news category Pulitzer Prize for this photo

1969: ‘Coretta Scott King’

Photo: Moneta Sleet Jr. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, and two funerals were held for him in Atlanta, Georgia. This picture is from a private service at Ebenezer Baptist Church and was taken by photographer Moneta Sleet Jr. She took a series of photographs at the funeral service for Ebony Magazine. Still, this one, in particular, caught the attention of the Pulitzer Prize jury. It received the prize in the feature photography category in 1969.

It is undoubtedly an emotionally stirring photo that captures the sadness and helplessness of King’s widow Coretta Scott King. She’s holding her young daughter, Bernice, and her expressions say it all. 

The strength of the woman, the comforting of the child, and her dignity in the face of deep, personal grief. Although the picture was taken by a magazine photographer… [Sleet] was acting as part of a press pool and his picture was widely distributed and printed in many American newspapers.

Pulitzer Prize jury

This photo is special because it was rare when the Pulitzer Prize Board awarded the prize for magazine content. This category was officially opened in 2016. 

1968: ‘Kiss of Life’

Photo: Rocco Morabito / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The year 1968 was a revolutionary one as far as the world of photography is concerned. That year, Pulitzer Prize was divided into two categories- feature photography and spot news photography. So, we can say that 1968 was the inaugural year for the new format. That year, the jury had to select photographs for two categories and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for spot news to photographer Rocco Morabito’s Kiss of Life.

The backstory of this photo is equally intriguing as the picture itself. One afternoon in July 1967, Morabito was driving in Jacksonville, Florida, when he spotted a lineman, who was later identified as Randall Champion, was dangling upside down from an electric pole. It was an unusual sight, so Morabito decided to find out what was going on. It turned out that Champion had received 4,160 volts shock, and the jolt left him unconscious. That’s why he was dangling from the pole.

Morabito was associated with the Jacksonville Journal. He quickly took out his camera and clicked a photo. Then he called an ambulance. Right then, he saw another lineman approaching the pole. He was J.D. Thompson. He quickly climbed the pole and started giving his colleague mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. While this was going on, Morabito kept taking photographs. Finally, he heard Thompson, the hero of the moment, say, “He’s Breathing,” and left the site.

1966: ‘Flee To Safety

Photo: Kyochi Sawada / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

This was one of the many images taken during the Viet-nam war that won the Pulitzer Prize. It is an image of a mother and her four children, with an infant in hand fleeing crossing the river and running away from the Qui Nhon where the Viet Cong had set up their military base camp to attack the United States Marine. The U.S. Marine had asked all inhabitant, specifically women and children of the village to leave immediately as part of Operation Piranha, which was an assault attack on village to smoke out the Vietcong and clear them out of South Vietnam. It was a known fact that the communist guerilla terrorist Vietcong used women and children as screens and shields.

After Kyochi Sawada won the Pulitzer Prize for this photo, he searched for the family and donated half of his prize money to them.

1964: ‘Ruby Shoots Oswald’

Photo: Robert H. Jackson / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, TX, sent shockwaves around the world. Equally upsetting was the slaying of Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s assassin. This moment was captured on film and made history by winning the Pulitzer Prize. This photo was taken by Robert Hill Jackson, who worked for the Dallas Times Herald. Jackson was there in the basement of the courts and Dallas Police building as he was covering the transport of Oswald to county jail. Jackson was ready with his camera as Oswald walked toward the car, waiting to take him to the jail. Jackson later revealed what was going through his head as he prepared to capture the image:

I picked a spot… I didn’t want to be too close to him. I had to make sure I wasn’t in the path of the cars… I pre-focused the camera about 11 feet in front of me. They were coming toward me…

Robert H. Jackson 

However, his vantage point was obscured by a male- Jack Ruby. He was a nightclub owner. At the exact same time when Oswald approached the car, Ruby jumped out and opened fire at him, and at that very moment, Jackson “hit the shutter,” said the photographer. Oswald couldn’t survive the fatal harm in the chest. 

After Jackson checked what he had clicked, he was shocked to see the image. The incident was aired on T.V. and wreaked havoc across the media. But, it was Jackson’s photo that ultimately became the center of attraction. Kate Griendling, the granddaughter of the cop escorting Oswald, Dallas police detective Jim Leavelle, said that this photo had “captured the tipping point of the nation and a pivotal change in American culture.” 

1962: ‘Serious Steps’

Photo: Paul Vathis / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Photographer Paul Vathis outstandingly captured the collegiality and intensity between President John F. Kennedy and ex-President Dwight D. Eisenhower at Camp David. This photo was taken in 1961. At the time, Paul Vathis worked for The Associated Press. He captured the two most influential men of that era from behind while discussing the failure of the Bay of Pigs incident. President Kennedy had invited his predecessor for a meeting because he had planned to invade Cuba when Eisenhower was in office. 

A few moments before this photo was taken, the two presidents had already finished their press shots. However, Vathis wanted some more pictures. So, he hung back while his colleagues dispersed after the president’s staff announced ‘no more photos.’ Right then, Vathis managed to capture this rare image while on his knees, aiming from “between the legs of a Secret Service man.” His effort paid off as this photo won the Pulitzer Prize.

1961:’Tokyo Stabbing’

Photo: Yasushi Nagao / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Yasushi Nagao was the first international winner of the Pulitzer Prize in photography for 1961. He was in attendance at a live televise debate with an audience of 3000 attendees and quickly snapped this photograph of an angry ultra-nationalist seventeen year old student by the name of Otoya Yamaguchi pulls out a traditional ritual sword called the wakizashi and assassinates socialist politician Inejiro Asanuma in Tokyo, Japan, October 12th, 1960. Otoya Yamaguchi soon committed suicided by hanging in his cell using bedsheets to make a makeshift rope after he was arrested and interrogated for the live-television murder.

Long live the Emperor. If I had seven lives I would that to give for my country.

Otoya Yamaguchi (translated)

1960: ‘Last Rites of Jose Rodriguez’

Photo: Andrew Lopez / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The “Last Rites of Jose Rodriguez” is one of the four pictures photographer Andrew Lopez submitted to the Pulitzer Prize jury. It captures the final moments of the life of the former soldier. In 1959, Rodriguez was serving as a corporal in Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s army. 

After Fidel Castro and his forces came to power, hundreds of military and police forces’ family members were detained and sentenced to perish. Rodriguez was among those detainees who were executed during the Cuban Revolution. The entire event was witnessed by Lopez, who worked for United Press International. Rodriguez had to be executed by the firing squad, and the priest had given him last rites as well, but he wasn’t slain until the next day since the official order was in flux.

1958: ‘Faith and Confidence’

Photo: William C. Beall / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

This image showcasing a moment shared between a two-year-old boy and a cop in Washington D.C. captured the hearts of the Washington Daily News readers after the image was published in 1957. It was captured by William C. Beall, who was present at a Chinatown parade when this moment occurred. A young boy identified as Allen Weaver came too close to the dancing dragons, and that’s when police officer Maurice Cullinane tried to hold the boy back to keep him safe and engaged him in a polite conversation. 

Beall quickly immortalized this scene on camera film. Most of the submissions that year were dubbed ‘disappointing’ by the Pulitzer Prize jury except for this one, which they found to be an “an appealing picture which made a profound impression on readers… freezing forever a moment of childhood innocence.”

1957: ‘Sinking of the “Andrea Doria”‘

Photo: Harry Trask / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In a shocking twist, the Italian sea liner Andrea Doria and the Swedish American Line’s Stockholm struck each other while sailing off Nantucket Island. This event occurred in July 1956 and made headlines. The collision was surprising to many on-board because radar screens had indicated a safe passage despite the fog.  The Stockholm delivered a 40-feet gash to the hull of the Andrea Doria, due to which the passengers and crew had to abandon the ship. Since the ship had fallen so far to one side, more than half of the lifeboats submerged and weren’t accessible anymore. 

A day later, the Boston Traveler photographer Harry Trask climbed aboard a rescue aircraft to catch a glimpse of the abandoned and sinking luxury vessel. Soon after getting on board the plane, Trask felt uncomfortable, but he wanted to capture the scene, so he asked the pilot to make multiple passes. Later, when Trask recalled the flight, he described the scene in these words:

As we circled, I could see the stack gradually sink below the surface. As the air from the cabins rose to the surface, the water foamed. Debris and empty lifeboats were scattered everywhere. In nine minutes it was all over.

He submitted 16 photographs that he had taken in the air. This one, in particular, caught the attention of the Pulitzer Prize Board. The jury was so impressed by the picture that they dubbed it an “outstanding single picture.”

1955: ‘Tragedy by the Sea’

Photo: John L. Gaunt / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In 1955, the Pulitzer Prize Board described Tragedy by the Sea as a “poignant and profoundly moving” image. Taken on 2 April 1954, this photograph captures two parents’ emotional turmoil after realizing that their child was missing.

John L. Gaunt was a photographer for Los Angeles Times at the time. He was standing in his front yard nearby Hermosa Beach when his neighbor informed him about something exciting happening on the beach. Gaunt quickly grabbed his camera and went to check out what was happening. Gaunt found the young couple, the McDonalds, within mere minutes after losing their infant son, Michael. He had disappeared in the surf. 

The couple was walking along the waves, and their nineteen-month-old son Michael was playing nearby. As they lost their focus, Michael crawled into the sea, never to be found again. Gaunt had taken a series of images of the remorseful and gloomy couple. After these images were submitted to the Pulitzer Prize jury, they ranked them No. 4 in their top five photos. The decision was later overridden, and the photo received the prestigious award.

1954: ‘Rescue on the Pit River Bridge’

Photo: Virginia Schau / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Virginia Schau was the 2nd amateur photographer ever to win the Pulitzer Prize in news photography. Schau was the first female photographer to receive the prestigious award as well. In May 1953, when Virginia was on a fishing trip with her family, she saw an incident on the Pit River Bridge over Shasta Lake, California. The cab of a semi truck was sent over the edge. 

The person in the driving seat was recognized later as Paul Overby, and Hank Baum was accompanying him. Both of them were lifted to safety by the motorists present on the bridge, including Walter, Virginia Schau’s husband. A few moments after Baum and Overby were rescued, their cab burst into flames and quickly fell into the water below. Using a Kodak Brownie camera, Schau captured these moments.

Interestingly, her camera contained expired film, and only two exposures were remaining. Nevertheless, she submitted the photograph to the Sacramento Bee photo contest and received $10. This picture was later published in Ohio’s Akron Beacon Journal. It was then selected by The Associated Press and received the Pulitzer Prize. In the official announcement of the prize, Virginia was identified as Mrs. Walter M. Schau.

1951: ‘Flight of Refugees Across Wrecked Bridge in Korea’

Photo: Max Desfor / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Max Desfor clicked this photograph on 4 December 1950. He was working for the Associated Press during that time. Titled the “Flight of Refugees Across Wrecked Bridge in Korea,” this photo was one of the many images he captured while covering the Korean War. You may not believe that Desfor volunteered to cover the conflict through his camera and parachuted into North Korea with American troops. 

When Chinese and North Korean forces pushed back, American soldiers headed south, and Desfor ended up in an area near Pyongyang where he was surrounded by fleeing refugees. Later on, when Desfor was asked to recall the entire scene when thousands of North Korean refugees tried to cross the Taedong River, he described it in these words:

All of these people who are literally crawling through these broken-down girders of the bridge. They were in and out of it, on top, underneath, and just barely escaping the freezing water. My hands got so cold I could barely trip the shutter on my camera… I couldn’t even finish a full pack of film. It was just that cold.

When Desfor submitted these images of the Korean War, which were more than 50 in number, the Pulitzer Prize jury not only praised his portfolio but also recognized the great effort he put in taking these photographs. It wasn’t an easy task at all. He was praised for “all the qualities which make for distinguished news photography – imagination, disregard for personal safety, perception of human interest, and the ability to make the camera tell the whole story.” The jury, however, found this bridge photo to be the most poignant and worthy of the prize. 

1949: ‘Babe Ruth Bows Out’

Photo: Nathaniel Fein / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

This is the first-ever sports-themed photograph that won the Pulitzer Prize. Nathaniel ‘Nat’ Fein took babe Ruth Bows Out on 13 June 1948. On this day, George Herman Erhardt, aka Babe Ruth, played his final baseball game. At the time, Fein was associated with the New York Herald Tribune as a photographer. He was among the many photographers present at the event. Then why did Fein’s photograph win the Pulitzer Prize?

That’s because his photo captured Ruth’s emotions immaculately, which none else could achieve. You can feel Ruth’s emotional appearance from the bunker as he leans himself on a bat while thousands of spectators cheered for him. This photo is unique on its own. Fein moved behind Ruth intentionally to take advantage of the natural light as he wanted to capture Ruth’s uniform number. This was a historic moment as this uniform will not be worn again by a Yankees member- ever. So, it deserved some recognition, Fein thought to himself. The legendary player died two months after this photo was taken.

1945: Flag Raising on Iwo Jima

Photo: Joe Rosenthal / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

This endearing image from World War II was captured by Joseph Rosenthal on 23 February 1945. The photograph shows six Marines while they are raising a flag on Iwo Jima. It was taken five days after the USA Marines successfully took control of this island in the Pacific. They had endured a hard-fought confrontation with the Japanese army. As you can see, the flag is tied to an iron pipe. The Marines found it a bit of a challenge to place the flag atop Mount Suribachi. Rosenthal probably turned and saw their struggle. The photographer later revealed that someone told him that a group of Marines was raising the flag on Iwo Jima, and he wanted to witness this event himself.

As the trail got steeper, Rosenthal and his group’s progress slowed down, and they covered a few yards in one go. Rosenthal said he started wondering if all this effort was worth it at all. Suddenly, across the bow of the topmost ridge, he saw men working tirelessly with the flagpole. He was able to observe how laboriously the Marines brought up the flagpole. How did they manage to take the flagpole over? The question kept flashing in Rosenthal’s mind repeatedly. But he stayed mum and waited for the Marines to swing the flagpole into the upright position.

 I crowded back on the inner edge of the volcano’s rim, back as far as I could, in order to include all I could into the scene within the angle covered by my camera lens. I rolled up a couple of large stones and a Japanese sandbag to raise my short height clear of an intervening obstruction

 Joe Rosenthal

After capturing this historic moment and witnessing it first-hand, Rosenthal felt delighted. He sent the photos to the Associated Press and were published within hours. It was widely believed that Rosenthal’s pictures deserved a Pulitzer Prize. Hence, The Associated Press’s photo editor F. A. Resch sent them to a Pulitzer Prize board member with this message:

“We felt the material was so outstanding that it merited consideration accordingly.”

And, he was right! For your information, the Marines featured in this photograph are Ira Hayes, Michael Strank, Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block, Harold Keller, and Harold Schultz. Sousley, Strank, and Block perished moments after the photo was taken.