Saturday, June 20, 2015

Pulitzer and World Press Photographs of the Year, continued: 1979

Caution: disturbing content

Between 1942 and 1967 a Pulitzer Prize for Photography was awarded for photojournalism, that is, for photographs telling a news story. In 1968 that award was replaced by awards in two new categories:

· the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography (photography in the nature of breaking news, as it has been called since 2000); and

· the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography (human interest and matters associated with news items).

From 1955 World Press Photo has awarded prizes for the best photographs in 10 categories, with an overall award for the image that "... is not only the photojournalistic encapsulation of the year, but represents an issue, situation or event of great journalistic importance, and does so in a way that demonstrates an outstanding level of visual perception and creativity".

This series looks at the winning photographs from inception of the awards.

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Pulitzer Photograph of the Year for Spot (Breaking) News, 1979:

Thomas J Kelly 111, Pottstown Mercury, Pennsylvania, for a series called "Tragedy on Sanatoga Road."

It is odd and sometimes bizarre that horrific events can lead to great honour and prestige for those recording them. So it is with the 1979 Pulitzer for news photography awarded to Thomas Kelly.

In May of 1978 Richard Greist, after a drug-fueled binge, suffered a psychic breakdown and stabbed his pregnant wife to death with a screwdriver. He then cut open her body and removed his unborn son, mutilating its body. He also stabbed one of his two daughters in the eye and attacked his grandmother with a butcher knife. He also dismembered the family cat.

He was arrested by local and state police, covered in the blood of his victims and charged with murder, but two years later was found not guilty by reason of insanity by a county judge, and was then committed to Norristown State Hospital.

Tom Kelly was a photo supervisor for the Pottsdown Mercury at the time and was the first journalist on the scene when Greist was standing off the police. Greist’s inlaws worked for the same paper and were known to Kelly.

During the hour-long standoff with the police, Greist attacked family members with a knife but did let 6 year old daughter Beth Ann leave the house. Police officer Weaver picked her up and that forms one of a series of photographs that won Kelly the Pulitzer.


“In one split second — a blink of an eye — (Weaver) ran across the yard and picked up little Beth Ann who had just walked outside the door. It was so fast you didn’t even see it. I got one picture off. Once you look at the picture, you see that he was smiling. It is hard to smile in a situation like that but maybe in that spilt-second he realised he may have rescued that little girl and saved her life.”



Kelly’s photograph of the shirtless Greist was taken when Greist broke free and charged at Kelly.

On May 11, 1978, The Mercury published more than 10 of Kelly’s photographs and titled the series “Tragedy on Sanatoga Road.” The series included photographs of police crouched behind patrol cars and trees, Greist face down in the grass being handcuffed by an officer, an emergency medical technician taking Beth Ann Greist to safety and the body of Janice Greist being lifted into an ambulance surrounded by television cameras.

For Kelly, winning the Pulitzer was bittersweet because the events of that day were “terrible.”

“It is real, real difficult — real difficult — to win a prize like that knowing what happened. When that award was announced, there were several of us standing in the newsroom and it came over the teletype. Somebody said something in the newsroom and I looked down the hall and there was (Beth Ann’s) granddad. I went down and hugged him. And I said I was sorry.”

Kelly’s outlook and philosophy on recording tragic scenes is that it is the responsibility of a photojournalist to take photographs that help readers understand a story or a situation.

“The job of news photographers — who incidentally, I think, are the foot soldiers in the trenches of journalism — we are there to bring the pictures and the stories back to the public. You would hope that these pictures and pictures we take every day, show people and help people understand the world that we live in.”

Kelly is still taking photographs, as a freelance photojournalist.


Greist was committed to Norristown State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital. Each year since 1980 he has come up for review and each year, to the present, he has been recommitted. This is so even though evidence has been presented that his mental problems are in remission and he is allowed to leave on unsupervised trips and outings.

Richard Greist in 2009

The Greist case has raised a number of issues in respect of his continued recommitment. Under Pennsylvania’s Mental Health Procedures Act, the statute under which Greist’s commitment is secured, for a court to commit someone to a state hospital or treatment facility it must be found that the person suffers from a severe mental illness and would be a danger to themselves or others if allowed to go free. Of concern to some legal commentators is whether Greist, who is remarried and attends Sunday services at the local Jehova’s Witness church, is genuinely considered to be mentally ill and dangerous, thereby justifying continued commitment, or whether it is precautionary commitment.

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1979 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography (human interest and matters associated with news items):

Awarded to staff photographers of the Boston Herald American for "for photographic coverage of the blizzard of 1978."

The 1978 blizzard that hit the northeastern United States in 1978 was both historic and catastrophic. Boston received a then-record 27.1 inches (69 cm) of snow; Providence also broke a record, with 27.6 inches (70 cm) of snow and Atlantic City broke an all-time storm accumulation with 20.1 inches (51 cm). Nearly all economic activity was disrupted in the worst-hit areas. The storm killed approximately 100 people in the Northeast and injured around 4,500. The storm also caused over US$520 million (US $1.88 billion in 2015 terms) in damage.

Staff Photographers of Boston Herald American recorded the scenes in Pulitzer winning photographs:

Foam spraying over 30 metres into the air at a lighthouse.

Rescue of residents in Revere, Mass. Photographer Paul Benoit trekked for 10 hours on foot to get to Revere to photograph the scenes, through flood and winds, even needing to dry out his vamera in an oven first.

Residents of Farragut Road in South Boston dig out their cars from snowdrifts following the Blizzard of 1978. 

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1979 World Press Photograph of the Year:

Awarded to David Burnett for a photograph of a woman holding her child in her arms in a refugee camp in Thailand

Between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouges (meaning red Khmers, a separatist Cambodian group, and thereby meaning Cambodian Communists) were the ruling party in Cambodia. Led by Pol Pot, it orchestrated Cambodian genocide, was responsible for arbitrary executions and torture and denied the distribution of medicines. Its attempts at agricultural reform and self-sufficiency led to famine. 

In January 1979, the Vietnamese army captured the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh and ended the Khmer Rouge regime. The Vietnamese invasion caused a mass migration of Cambodians fleeing to makeshift camps near the Thai border. Later, they moved to holding centres in Thailand, where David Burnett made his award-winning photo of a Cambodian mother and her child.


David Burnett, Prince Bernhard and Foreign Minister Van der Klaauw at the Awards Ceremony in the Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam, 2 April 1980
(It always strikes me as somewhat incongruous that dignitaries in suits are smiling next to award winning photographs of tragic scenes)


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