PROVO — The new photography exhibition at Brigham Young University Museum of Art is unique in a lot of ways. It offers a survey of American and world history from 1942 to the present day. It’s the first time these photos have been seen together outside of the Newseum in Washington, D.C. And it may be one of the most important exhibitions the museum has hosted.
“It really is a kind of holistic or a complete view of where we have been as Americans, where we have been as members of a global community for the last 80 years, and reminding us of the positive things but also the negative things that we’ve been through together,” MOA curator Kenneth Hartvigsen said. “I think it’s a very valuable show.”
The "Pulitzer Prize Photographs" exhibition displays, as the name suggests, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs from every year since the committee began awarding the prize to photojournalists in 1942. Eighty photos hang in the exhibition, with still more photos available for museumgoers to view on interactive kiosks. Patrons will recognize iconic photos such as the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, and more recently, the picture of a Ferguson, Missouri, protester throwing a can of tear gas back at the police.
“A lot of the material is challenging,” Hartvigsen said. “It is a show that doesn’t hold back on the difficult things that we’ve experienced.”
Difficult things like the terrorist attacks on 9/11 or the shooting of James Meredith, a young black man who in the 1960s began a solitary peace march through Mississippi (he survived the shooting and 15,000 people, including Martin Luther King Jr., joined him to complete the march).
Preparation for the exhibition required sifting through the images. With so much “heavy” material, MOA educator Philipp Malzl had to often take breaks.
“I would read through a few labels at a time and I would have to take a break, because it was just too hard to deal with at times,” Malzl said. “There were certainly days where I could get through more material than (on) other days.”
This may sound like a deterrent, but Malzl wants people to know that not all of the images show terror and violence. There are also photos of victories — in sports, politics and personal lives that serve as a reminder that positive change can come from negative events.
Shining a light
Photographer Jack Dykinga won the 1971 feature photography category for his photos depicting conditions inside special education facilities in Illinois. According to the MOA's label, the conditions were “deplorable,” with hundreds of patients crammed into small buildings without proper clothing or sanitation. Single aides had to care for more than 100 patients.
The story came about when concerned parents tipped off the newspaper where Dykinga worked.
“The governor at the time was cutting funding for that sort of care. So the idea was to report on what was there, and that flew in the face of what the governor was trying to do in terms of funding the institutions,” Dykinga told the Deseret News.
Another story Hartvigsen related is that of “Fire Rescue Attempt” by Ron Olshwanger. The photo shows a firefighter attempting to revive a 2-year-old girl after rescuing her from a fire in 1988. The young girl didn’t survive — but the photo did inspire people to buy smoke detectors.
“Without that photograph, being as dramatic as it is and being as powerful as it is, perhaps other lives would have been lost because people wouldn’t have realized the significance of … having a (smoke detector) in their homes,” Hartvigsen said. “That’s a reality that (some of) these photographs … saved lives.”
Hartvigsen added that photographs also have the power to sway people’s opinions on topics such as war. A haunting example is Paul Watson’s 1993 photograph “Dead U.S. Soldier in Mogadishu.”
In 1992, then-President George H.W. Bush authorized Operation Restore Hope, which sent U.S. troops into Somalia to intervene in the chaos caused by civil war and famine. They were not welcomed. A day after Somali militants shot down two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters, Watson witnessed a mob dragging the mutilated corpse of an American soldier, who had been stripped to his underwear.
After the photo was published in 1993, an outraged President Bill Clinton announced that U.S. troops would leave Somalia — which they did, a few short months later.
Graphic depictions of violence such as Watson’s photo are why the exhibition comes with a warning. Painted on the wall at the entrance of the exhibition, it reads, “Caution: Some material in this exhibition, including photographic depictions of actual violence, may be too intense for some visitors. Parents are encouraged to preview the exhibition before attending with children.”
Hartvigsen and Malzl both emphasized the idea of parents previewing the exhibition before bringing their children because there isn’t necessarily a certain age these types of images become appropriate or digestible.
“It depends entirely on the parent and the child,” Malzl said. “Even adults, I think, need to be cautioned. Because … it’s not just children who might struggle with some of these issues. … As I prepared for the exhibition, I experienced a lot of grief myself.”
To provide even more assistance to parents, Malzl created a short gallery guide that includes 10 images from the exhibition and prompts to foster discussion between families.
Meaningful discussions, in Hartvigsen’s view, are an important part of the exhibition, especially when it comes to images with heavier content.
“Think about this as an exhibition (where) you want to be with (your children). Stay by their side. Talk to them about what you see on the wall,” Hartvigsen advised. “I want (parents) to be present with their children as they experience (the exhibition) and have those meaningful conversations together.”
'A real privilege'
"Pulitzer Prize Photographs" isn't just photos of doom and gloom, though. One photo of hope shows the Nigerian women’s track team at the 1992 Olympics. Photographer Ken Geiger captured the moment the team learned they had taken third, winning the bronze medal.
Geiger became aware of what was happening moments before the bronze medalists were announced.
“You could just tell by looking at them that they were super nervous and excited at the fact that they could even place … (and) they were right in front of me,” he said.
Quickly, Geiger switched from his enormous 600-millimeter lens — a camera lens that can weigh anywhere between 10 or 15 pounds — to a more manageable 300-millimeter lens. Right as he picked up his smaller lens, the winners were announced and he said the Nigerian team went “ballistic” in celebration.
Although the photo is part of a portfolio of Pulitzer-winning images, Geiger said it’s always the one picked out for being a “happy moment.”
“I knew that it was going to be a good image. The thing is, the Americans won the gold, and that was the image of the day” Geiger said. “Even though the Nigerians (were) the better photograph.”
Over his long career as a photographer, covering the 1992 Olympics and subsequent Olympics have been career highlights.
“Covering track and field at the Olympics is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done as a photographer,” Geiger said. “It’s an incredible thing to do. It’s a real privilege.”
A case for journalists
Hartvigsen feels this is an especially important time for an exhibition that showcases, above all else, journalism
“We’re … living at a time when the legitimacy of the press is being constantly attacked,” Hartvigsen said. “And this exhibition I think very forcefully says, the news media is an integral part of what it is meant to be American, that we wouldn’t be who we are or where we are without the freedom of the press and without understanding the world the way we do through the work of journalists and photojournalists.”
Hartvigsen said he feels this exhibition makes the case for journalists “very strongly — or I hope it does."
As part of the exhibit, the Newseum compiled 15 hours worth of interviews with the featured journalists. A video of these interviews plays on a continuous loop in the MOA exhibition, although patrons likely would have to visit several times to hear every interview.
Labels accompanying each photo also often contain quotes from the photographers themselves. Reading them not only gives context to the photographs, but can illustrate the great personal sacrifices required by journalists in pursuit of a story.
A week or so before Watson took his Pulitzer-winning photograph, a few journalists had been killed.
"There were many moments when it could have been me,” Watson said. “I feel a responsibility to those good colleagues who didn’t make it. And they died trying to tell the truth.”
In addition to physical danger, the kinds of stories journalists cover can cause emotional trauma. Watson said he’s been haunted by his photograph ever since he took it.
Sometimes the trauma proved to be too much to live with, as was the case with photographer Kevin Carter. Sent to cover the famine and civil war in 1993 in Sudan, Carter came across a vulture stalking a tiny, starving girl, too weak to walk.
Journalists had been warned not to touch famine victims in case of disease. After Carter took his photo, he chased away the vulture, then crawled under a tree and cried. He later is quotedas having said, “I’m really, really sorry I didn’t pick the child up.”
Three months after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his photo in 1994, Carter took his own life. He wrote in his suicide note that he was haunted by memories of violence and “starving or wounded children.”
For Malzl, this makes the video interviews with journalists all the more important.
“These journalists … I’m not going to say all of them, but most of them are not just out to win a prize. They’re not out for glory. They are out to shed light on important issues, often, truly putting their own lives at risk, their own safety,” Malzl said.
He cited coverage of the Ebola virus outbreak as an example; he said the featured journalists who covered the outbreak were eager to bring attention to this important story.
“I’m inspired by the photographers who truly are selfless and self-sacrificing in bringing us these stories at the expense of their … own lives, but also their own emotions,” Malzl said.
Take time to pause
An important part of the exhibition that’s unique to the MOA is a comment wall. Malzl came up with six different prompts that get patrons thinking about their responses to the exhibition.
“We like to … allow people a chance to process and express what they take away,” Malzl said.
The hope is that an opportunity to think about and respond to the exhibition will help people walk away with a positive experience, rather than feeling depressed from numerous heavy images. So far, Malzl feels like it’s been successful.
“(People) are getting it right. They are spending time, they are lingering a bit to express their thoughts with specific prompts that we came up with,” Malzl said. “We’re really happy with the public response so far.”
A general “share your insights about this exhibition” prompt appears to be the most popular, but many patrons have also chosen to answer the question, “How can you contribute to a safe and peaceful world?” The answers have so far been along the lines of, “I can be a better person,” “I can help people,” and so on.
These responses encourage Malzl, Hartvigsen and the rest of the MOA staff. Hartvigsen in particular hopes families will take the time to discuss the issues illustrated by the photographs and create a learning experience for the children who will grow up to be leaders.6 comments on this story
“The kinds of troubles that we see in the past in some of these photographs will not go away, because humans are imperfect … ,” he said. “But I think we need to learn from the past if we want to be serious about making a better future tomorrow."
If you go ...
What: Brigham Young University Museum of Art's exhibition "Pulitzer Prize Photographs"
Where: BYU Museum of Art, North Campus Drive, Provo
When: On display through March 3, 2019. Open Monday and Thursday-Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Tuesday-Wednesday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
How much: Free