Winning a Pulitzer Prize is a big deal for a journalist. I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that.
Yet it’s a fleeting high. The celebration doesn’t stay with you. When you’ve won an award with images of horror and unbearable pain, what sticks is guilt and grief.
That’s the honest truth.
For me, the only lingering magic is this: A Pulitzer means I can keep my silent promise to Frantz Samedi. Samedi was a father I met on Sept. 7, 2008, in the small town of Cabaret a day after torrential rain and flood waters from Hurricane Ike destroyed its flimsy infrastructure, killing 70 people. One-third of the dead were children swept from their beds and parents’ arms.
Normally, it’s an hour’s drive to Cabaret from Port-au-Prince, but that morning it took several hours for our driver to get Miami Herald reporter Jacqueline Charles and me through washed-out roads. We saw the first solitary bodies along the street outside of town, but soon there were crowds urging us forward.
“Babies,” we kept hearing. “There are babies.”
They were lined up side-by-side, as if sleeping. They ranged in age from infants to 12- year-olds. Many of them were naked, mud-caked.
I don’t know how I pressed the shutter, but Jacquie and I numbly went through the motions, stifling our horror.
Suddenly, Samedi pushed through the crowd with a plastic jug of water and a rag. “This is my baby,” he shouted at me.
“This is my baby! Give me a picture!”
He began crying and cradling a 5-year-old girl, peeling her muddy clothes away and tenderly washing her body. He wanted to put her in a pretty dress for a proper burial, but a pickup truck from the morgue showed up.
He protested wildly, asked them to wait so he could run to get the dress. The police convinced him to let go. They had to take her. They threw her naked body onto a stack of others in the back of the truck.
Her name was Tamasha Jean.
The way Samedi held her in his arms, her body slumped and limp, reminded me of the way parents carry sleeping children in from the car. My own daughters back in Miami were 9 and 8 years old at the time.
My racing mind clung to Samedi and his simple request to acknowledge his girl’s life. I made a silent promise to give him a picture.
How could this tragedy occur without the slightest notice of the world?
When the photo of Samedi cradling Tamasha Jean ran on the front page of the Miami Herald the next day, other people asked themselves that same question.
Humanitarian aid began pouring into Haiti to help the country recover from one of its worst hurricane seasons ever, with a total death toll of 800.
That was before the devastating 2010 earthquake.
I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever see in my life. I was wrong.
Everywhere you turn in Haiti, there is an image that has to be seen. It is a place of breathtaking beauty and strength. It makes you happy to be alive. Unfortunately, all too often, Haiti also is ground zero for disaster and brutal poverty.
Seven months after that morning in Cabaret, when Samedi’s photo and 18 others I shot during that merciless season won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography, an even wider audience noted Tamasha Jean’s life and Haiti’s fragile state.
For that brief moment of recognition, Haiti wasn’t some strange country filled with foreign problems and unimaginable lives. It became a place where a father loved his daughter.
I hope that human connection happens every time Frantz Samedi’s photo is published in a newspaper or posted on a Web site or hung on a wall.
And I hope it happens for people who visit “Capture the Moment” while the Pulitzer photos curated by Cyma Rubin are on exhibit at Florida International University’s Frost Art Museum in Miami.
It’s the only way I can keep my promise.