Chances are that the first thing you remember about Viet Nam, World War II, Afghanistan — or any of the other recent war and conflict — is a photo. Not any photo, but the iconic pictures that encapsulate the horror and poignancy of a moment.
Who can forget the group of soldiers lifting an American flag at Iwo Jima? Or the young Vietnamese woman walking in despair, her naked body burning from the ravages of Napalm? And more recently, the attacks on Kabul, the weary American soldiers on their way to another tour of duty and the overjoyed families that greet them at the airport when they return?
With these images by exceptional photojournalists, we learned about famine around the world and homelessness just around the corner; cruelty and bravery in the killing fields and in our mean streets; daily compassion; personal and collective acts of courage. We stare at tragedy and we witness acts of faith; and we again marvel at human beings’ overwhelming power of resilience. These photographers “Captured the Moment” and were recognized with Pulitzer Prize awards. Their work between 1942 and today is on display at a major exhibition at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center until the end of the year. Each is accompanied by a brief narrative from the photographer.
I can tell you that as often as I’ve seen them — these 150 photos are after all, the sign post of our recent history — nothing prepares you to look at them greatly enlarged right in front of you. You will gasp, nod in recognition or revelation, you will reflect and stare at detail you never noticed before. You will choke up, even cry and often smile, but you will never be indifferent.
“These photographs have a very strange power, a force that can carry human emotions across barriers of language, time and space,” said Cyma Rubin, the master mind and curator of the national traveling exhibition. “The photos say quickly and clearly that war is brutal and victory sweet, children are innocent and life is fragile and they say it equally to men and women of different classes and cultures. The very best pictures change the way we think about racism at home, or famine half way down the world, about the miracle of birth, the pain of war, the joy of a family reunited, the sorrow of a loved one lost.”
Photojournalists are both artists and risk takers, they get close to danger, they get close to sorrow, tragedy and indignation. They wait in a heightened state of alertness to capture the elusive moments. They get immersed in their stories. For instance in 1985, Philadelphia Inquirer photographer Tom Gralish spent a month with a group of homeless men in the city, got to know them and one of his photos, was awarded a Pulitzer, and became an iconic image.
“The photographer’s job is not to take sides,” says curator Cyma Rubin,” they have the huge responsibility to tell the truth, for better or for worse, and often their job is a quest for justice. They can’t change the world, but if they do their work right they might offer the world reason to change.”