Stunning Pulitzer Prize-winning photos: The real stories

What makes a photo worthy of a Pulitzer?
What makes a photo worthy of a Pulitzer?


    What makes a photo worthy of a Pulitzer?


What makes a photo worthy of a Pulitzer? 02:39

Story highlights

  • Pulitzer Prizes are approaching their 100th anniversary
  • New edition of the book, "Moments," features Pulitzer winners for photography
  • Since 1942, Pulitzer photos have included some of history's most famous images

(CNN)Do you have a second? Maybe you'd like to witness a bit of history.

All it takes is a second for a photographer to snap a picture that could be the next Pulitzer Prize winner.
Right place, right time, right equipment, right photographer.
Suddenly the world has an image burned into our social consciousness.
These are some of the most famous photos in the world: federal agents grabbing a boy at gunpoint inside a Miami home, a starving girl and a hungry vulture, Marines at Iwo Jima, a Vietnam napalm attack.
Only a handful of photographers really know what it's like to witness history and create an image that's truly iconic.
Like on that November day in 1963, when Dallas news photographer Bob Jackson watched a nightclub owner named Jack Ruby shoot and kill presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald — inside police headquarters.
"He fired, and I hit the shutter. ...," Jackson told the Denver Post in 2013. "I couldn't have planned it better."
We all know the picture: A wide-eyed Texas detective leaning back in surprise. Ruby pulling the trigger and Oswald — eyes closed, mouth open — being shot.
When Jackson's colleagues first saw the photo a few hours later, they knew it was destined for greatness, asking him, "How does it feel to win the Pulitzer?"
Pulitzer Prizes have been given for journalism and the arts since 1917. In 1942, the Pulitzer board started recognizing photographs. A new edition of "Moments," a book by former Associated Press photo chief Hal Buell, tells the dramatic stories behind these pictures.
Surprisingly, there's no set criteria for a Pulitzer-winning photo. Each must be "distinguished," according to the official website. Winners must be entered and pass through a nominating jury and a vote by the Pulitzer Prize board.
Together, Pulitzer-winning images have become a fascinating timeline of the past 73 years. "But it's not particularly a perfect timeline of history," Buell said. "If I were to do a book of photographs that recorded a timeline of history, there would be some Pulitzer winners that would not be in there and there would be some that would be."
How to say Pulitzer

"PULL it sir"

(Not "PEW lit sir")

Source: Pulitzer Prizes website

By the way, it's pronounced "PULL it sir." Not "PEW lit sir," according to the Pulitzer Prizes official website.
Buell's book reveals the amazing stories behind Pulitzer-winning images. "Pictures are a combination of serendipity, instinct and experience," Buell said. "Of course a good photographer has all of these things going for him."

'Back off!'

Alan Diaz was in the right place at the right time in 2000. A little Cuban boy named Elian Gonzalez, who was found clinging to an inner tube in the Florida Straits, got caught up in an immigration dispute that gained global attention. U.S. officials decided to send Gonzalez back to his father in Cuba, against the wishes of his American relatives. Federal agents forced their way into the Miami home where Gonzalez was staying.
Inside, a few feet from the boy, Diaz waited for the right moment. The boy's family members had given Diaz permission to wait with Gonzalez for the impending raid. When an armed agent wearing riot gear entered the room, Diaz photographed him pointing a rifle at Gonzalez. As Diaz stepped closer, the agent warned, "Back off!"
Diaz did as he was told, but continued to take pictures. As the agent backed out of the room with Gonzalez in tow, the agent again forcefully repeated, "Back off!" The agents left the house and hours later, Gonzalez was back in Cuba.
Now age 21, Gonzalez said he remembers little about his time in Miami. He said he wants to visit the United States again someday to thank those who supported his return.

A heartbreaking photo and suicide

In 1993, Kevin Carter stunned the world with his image of a vulture waiting patiently for a little girl to starve to death during a famine in Sudan.
While covering the famine, Carter wandered into a brushy area near a feeding station. He heard whimpering and discovered the little girl on the ground, too weak to move. When a vulture landed nearby, Carter snapped a few photos and then chased the bird away.
The resulting image "touched a global nerve," according to the book.
Later, Carter's friends reported he was suffering from depression. The following year, after Carter learned the photo had won a Pulitzer, Carter's best friend was killed while covering violence in Johannesburg. In July 1994, Carter, age 33, killed himself by connecting a hose from his truck's exhaust pipe into the cab. A note Carter left behind said he was "haunted by unrelenting memories of killings, madmen with guns, starving children, corpses and pain," according to Buell's book.

A five-story fall, frozen in time

Photographer Stanley Forman used his camera to essentially freeze an extremely dramatic moment in Boston. In 1975, a firefighter was trying to rescue a woman and her 2-year-old niece from the balcony of a burning building. When the balcony collapsed, the woman and child both fell five stories to the ground. Forman was there with his camera. "I watched everything give way through my lens as people and metal tumbled through the air," Forman says in Buell's book. "I remember thinking I didn't want to see them hit."
Forman turned away and then looked up to see the firefighter dangling from a ladder and pulling himself to safety.
The woman died. Her niece miraculously survived because she fell on her aunt, which cushioned her landing.
"This picture never fails to draw a gasp," Buell said. "The picture itself is the news; it shows that dramatic moment between life and death."
The photo is credited with spurring communities around the world to strengthen laws governing fire balcony safety.

An on-stage assassination

Yasushi Nagao, a photographer for Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun, showed up for an assignment at a packed auditorium in Tokyo.
It wasn't supposed to be a big deal, just a political speech. Nagao had no idea what was about to happen.
As Socialist Party Chairman Inejiro Asanuma began speaking, a fanatical right-wing student zealot named Otoya Yamaguchi, armed with a razor-sharp samurai sword, ran on stage with full force into Asanuma, plunging the weapon into the politician's stomach and heart.
A podium blocked the full view of the attack for most photographers in the room, but Nagao had a clear shot.
Right place, right time.
Nagao's image clearly showed Asanuma's shock and Yamaguchi's intense facial expression during the stabbing. Asanuma died minutes later. Eventually, Yamaguchi committed suicide.
In 1961 that photo made Nagao the first non-American to win a photography Pulitzer.

Arguably the most famous photo ever

The photo of U.S. Marines raising an American flag atop Mount Suribachi on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in 1945 really did change the world. The powerful image helped win World War II. It was used as a public relations tool to raise money for the cash-strapped U.S. government and lift spirits among the troops and Americans back home.
Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal nearly missed his chance to capture the now iconic image.
This was long before today's sophisticated cameras and digital technology. Photographers took one picture at a time, often with only one opportunity to get the perfect shot.
Rosenthal stood atop the summit as the Marines began lowering one American flag and raising another. He had to quickly decide whether to shoot both flags simultaneously — one rising while the other lowered — or to photograph the second flag by itself as it was being raised.
He chose to focus on the second flag, a choice that made all the difference. The resulting image may be the most famous, perfectly composed photo of all time.
Rosenthal's picture has become almost an unofficial symbol of the Marine Corps and World War II in the Pacific. The Marines embraced it by transforming the photo into a memorial statue in Arlington, Virginia. Hollywood movies have been made about the flag raising. The U.S. Postal Service featured it on a stamp. Even the shape of the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia, was inspired by Rosenthal's photo.

The 'napalm girl'

Associated Press photographer Nick Ut knows what it's like to create a photo that impacts an entire generation. In 1972, Ut took the famous photo of a terrified, naked girl fleeing a South Vietnamese napalm bombing.
Nine-year old Kim Phuc's clothes had been burned away and Ut photographed her as she ran down a road, emerging through clouds of smoke.
"That picture has so much tragedy in it," Ut said earlier this year.
When he realized she needed help, Ut put down his camera and helped her get to a hospital. Doctors told Phuc's family she wasn't expected to live. Half her body was ravaged by third degree burns. But after multiple surgeries, she survived.
"He saved my life," Phuc said earlier this year. "I will never forget that for the rest of my life. That's why I call Uncle Ut a part of my family."
She still suffers pain from the scars. But this year, Phuc underwent laser treatments aimed at healing the scars and reducing the pain.
Many people have credited Ut's picture with helping end the war. But at the time the image went global, U.S. participation in the conflict was already winding down. Seven months after the photo, the Paris Peace Accords announced the eventual pullout of all American combat forces.
"The horror of war," Buell said. "That photo will always be a symbol of that concept."

The shoe

The purpose of the Pulitzer photography awards is to encourage good journalism, Buell said. "But good journalism is not always historical journalism."
Examples include the 1997 winner, featuring Russian leader Boris Yeltsin clearly enjoying himself during a brief dance on stage, and the 1949 winner, showing the last on-field appearance of baseball great Babe Ruth.
Another nonhistorical example involved a shoe.
What if a photographer caught a 2016 presidential candidate with an embarrassing hole in their shoe?
Would the image go viral? Maybe.
Actually, that kind of happened 63 years ago at a campaign event on a stage in Flint, Michigan. Photographer Bill Gallagher noticed a hole in the bottom of Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson's shoe.
That might make for a nice shot, Gallagher thought. The trick was how keep the photo exclusive by snapping the photo nonchalantly, so his competitors wouldn't notice.
"He came alongside the stage and he put his camera on stage ... and he kind of blindly shot the picture," Buell said. "It's one of those vignettes ... an oddity that caught the eye of the editors."
Hardly news, but that photo won a Pulitzer.
Recently cynics have questioned the value of the awards -- now that technology allows virtually anyone to be a photographer or a reporter with a worldwide audience.
But as the Pulitzer Prizes approach their 100th anniversary, it's safe to say the awards have become an institution that's unlikely to disappear anytime soon.