The images are indelible: U.S. Marines raise the American flag on Iwo Jima. A Vietnamese girl burned by napalm runs toward the camera, screaming. A World Trade Center tower erupts in flames while smoke pours ominously from the second tower.
Some are less immediately familiar but no less powerful. Athletes celebrate an Olympic victory. A vulture waits patiently near a starving Ethiopian child. A shamed American president bows his head while his stoic wife, also a politician, looks on. Others deliver a punch to the gut if you happen to live in Miami, delivering reminders of the chaotic, terrifying aftermath of a Haitian hurricane (and, later, an earthquake) or the repercussions of an armed federal agent pointing a weapon at a man in a closet holding a boy named Elian.
Wednesday marks the Florida debut of “Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs,” a traveling exhibit that runs through April 20 at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Museum at Florida International University. But in many ways it’s more than just an exhibit. It’s an exhilarating, often heartbreaking, always fascinating journey through history.
“I’ve been looking at these photographs for 20 years,” says curator Cyma Rubin, “and each time I see something I didn’t see before.”
The Pulitzer Prize, which was first awarded in 1917, created its first newspaper photography award in 1942 and added a second in 1968 to honor feature photography. Rubin, who produced and directed the Emmy-winning documentary Moment of Impact: Stories of the Pulitzer Prize Photographs, first started putting the exhibit together in 1994.
“It took four years to find the negatives, because newspapers hadn’t been preserving negatives,” says Rubin, who is also a Tony Award-winning producer. “They didn’t think there was any value to it.”
Displayed as they are in “Capture the Moment,” though, the large-format photographs make an impressive impact (“I made them big because I want people to step into the situation,” Rubin says.) They range through time from a picket line beating at the first United Auto Workers strike at Ford Motor Co. in Detroit to the most recent winner from 2013, a series on the brutal effects of the war in Syria.
There are 166 photos in the exhibit, but due to space considerations at the Frost Museum, the first several decades of winners — the 1940s through the 1970s — have to be viewed on four video monitors, each representing a decade. The exhibit starts on the museum’s first floor and moves up to the second floor chronologically, with the most recent works upstairs, a design strategy that works in its favor. In the time it takes to ride the elevator up, visitors have a moment or two to reflect on what they’ve seen.
Eric Newton, former managing editor of the Newseum in Washington and senior advisor to the president at Knight Foundation, which is sponsoring the show, says such pauses are crucial to appreciating its impact.
“It’s easy to take for granted the news pictures you see every day,” he says, adding that the exhibit is second in popularity only to the 9/11 exhibit at the Newseum. “We hope this exhibit will help people pause for a moment and think about how these photographs are taken by someone trained to put journalism into photojournalism and try to preserve history for the rest of us.”
Newton, who will lead a panel discusson at the Frost on March 5 with some of the photographers represented in the show, including the Miami Herald’s Patrick Farrell, says the show has a second mission beyond its historic significance: reminding us of the value of trained photojournalists.
“It’s important because in the digital age a lot has been said about the value of traditional media. And while it’s true that we are a world with billions of people carrying cameras and with more photographs being taken than at any other time in human history, this exhibit shows why photojournalism is special. It’s not the same kind of photography that those of us who carry smartphones are able to capture.
“Photojournalists are not normal people. They do things the rest of us don’t do. They want to go to wars. They run toward people who are shooting bullets. They go where we can’t go, and because of that they see what we can’t see, and so they bring back stories that change how we view the world.”
Rubin agrees that such vital images have the power to influence change.
“The photograph is more powerful than the word,” she says. “People hear the words and listen to them but don’t necessarily act upon them. Then they see the photograph, and things being to happen — changes in laws, in government reactions. The result of Patrick Farrell’s shoot in Haiti, that’s when international aid was awakened. The photojournalist is a powerful ignitor of what the world can change. Look at the civil rights movement, Vietnam, child labor laws — photographs brought about an awakening.
“That iconic Iwo Jima flag raising, that will be part of history. It changed the face of the American attitude in the war. Before that picture was published, we were losing. War bond sales were down. The American public was in a funk. We were fighting on two fronts. And then suddenly there it was, a shot in the arm.”