Photojournalists’ images can speak louder than words

The newspaper you are reading right now has a lot of words in it. Some days, there are half a million of them, with even more appearing online. There are so many words, no one tries to read them all. Yet in the blink of an eye, you will consume another type of journalism today entirely, voraciously.

The pictures. Photojournalism. Images that tell stories so rich you may not even need to read the words under the photos.

What would the Miami Herald be without news photographs? Not much, if you ask me. Still, some struggling newspapers have dumped their photographers. In Chicago, the Sun-Times laid off its entire photo staff.

That was a mistake. In the end, the paper agreed to hire some of the photographers back.

Much is said about how the digital age is remaking traditional media. Much of what is said is true. If anything, though, still photographs are more magical than ever. They draw our eyes like magnets. They stop time. They freeze a single moment so we can feel it, understand it and remember it.

Think about the pictures you see in the news. Why are they so close to the action? Because professional photojournalists do odd things to get them, things most people will not do, not even billions of people with smart phones. News photographers do unnatural things. They want to be in wars. They run toward gunfire. They explore the ends of the Earth; touch the bottom of the sea, edge far too close to volcanoes, tornadoes and blizzards.

We always will need good photojournalists. They go where we can’t go. They see what we can’t see.

They bring back stories that change how we view the world.

I was editing the Oakland Tribune in Califorinia during the ’89 Loma Prieta earthquake, which killed dozens in the Bay Area. The quake collapsed a double-decker freeway a half-mile from our office. Within minutes photographer Michael Macor was climbing to the top of what was left of the thing. An aftershock would have meant the end of him. “I was mostly reacting,” he said later, “recording history as best I could.”

Normal people just don’t do that. In earthquakes they seek safety, not a first rough draft of history. If you still aren’t convinced, visit the 166 photographs on display from Feb. 12 to April 20 at the Frost Art Museum on the campus of Florida International University in southwest Miami. The exhibit is called Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs.

Almost 3 million people have seen this show as it has traveled the United States and Asia. Why? In the digital age, still photography still matters.

The show contains some of the most dramatic photos of the past 70 years. From war to the Olympics, the fall of the Berlin Wall to the bombing of the World Trade Center, the Babe retiring from baseball and a baby at the moment of birth, the images represent the winners of American journalism’s most prestigious award. They provide a visual history lesson but also a social one, a tour through all the joys and tragedies of the human condition.

Curator Cyma Rubin chose a historic photo for the exhibit banner: the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. But what about a second photo? Knight Foundation, a co-sponsor of the exhibit, emphasizes the importance of “informed and engaged communities.” So we engaged the students at FIU, asking them to vote on the other picture for the banner. What did they choose? A Haitian child salvaging a muddy stroller in the wake of Hurricane Ike. History is great. But students chose a story closer to them in time and space.

Miami and the Herald are well-represented in the show. Patrick Farrell won a Pulitzer for the Hurricane Ike photos; former Herald photographers Michel duCille, for the scourge of crack addiction in Miami, and Carol Guzy and duCille for the explosion of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia.

Miami also was the scene of the photo taken by Alan Diaz, of the Associated Press, of federal agents seizing a terrified 6-year-old Elián González in Little Havana to send him back to Cuba. South Florida is the setting for prize-winning Palm Beach Post photographs of migrant agricultural workers.

Great pictures stay with us for the same reason a newspaper (or web site, tablet or smart phone) is full of photos. Humans tend to remember whole narratives, entire stories, better than we remember the bits and pieces. The best photographs tell whole stories.

Photojournalists don’t have to win a Pulitzer Prize to make a difference. Every day in newspapers throughout the United States, news photographers send us, feeling and thinking, to the places beyond

words. Many days their pictures are welcome islands of meaning in the endless sea of information.

Everyone can administer first aid. Not everyone is a surgeon. So it is with photography. Anyone in the right place at the right time can take a great news picture. Not everyone is a photojournalist.

It’s easy to take for granted the news pictures you will see today. Some you like; others you don’t. But for a second, think about the stories behind the best of those photos. They were taken by a person trained to put the journalism into photojournalism, at times operating in conditions as dangerous as those faced by police officers, firefighters or combat troops, serving and preserving history, adding to our collective understanding of the world.

Eric Newton is senior adviser to the president at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. He co-edited “Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs,” on exhibit Feb. 12 to April 20 at the Frost Art Museum. Go to to see more Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs.

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